Small-business owners Mayra Chavez and her mother, Eva Saavedra, have dealt with crises before. Their restaurant, El Huarache Azteca, has been serving up Mexico City-style cuisine to customers in the Fruitvale district, uninterrupted, for nearly two decades. The establishment survived both the Great Recession of 2008 and the passing of Chavez’s father and Saavedra’s husband, Juan Chavez, in 2017.
From a business standpoint, Chavez said neither of those events compare to the challenges now confronting El Huarache Azteca.
“Even though my parents lost their house [during the recession], we still kept afloat. We still had income coming in to pay rent, to pay bills,” she said. “The comparison with what is going on now – it’s worlds apart.”
Raúl Maya has owned Fashion Palace, a men’s clothing store on International Boulevard just next door to El Huarache Azteca, for 20 years. He closed the business down when the county shelter-in-place order was announced on March 17. As the shutdown moves into its second month, he worries about the future of his store and how he’s going to pay the rent, not only for his commercial space, but his house as well.
“My landlord keeps coming by my place and pounding on the door, threatening to call the cops because I haven’t paid the rent,” Maya said. “She’s not understanding my current situation.”
In normal times, Fruitvale is a bustling neighborhood, home to hundreds of mostly immigrant-owned shops, people of color and family-owned small markets, clothing stores, artesanal shops, specialty stores, and restaurants. Its sidewalks are filled with pedestrians, kids in strollers, and street vendors. Since last month’s shelter-in-place order, however, things have been anything but normal.
Non-essential businesses like Maya’s clothing store were forced to close their doors, and dine-in restaurants like El Huarache Azteca were required to limit their business to take-out service only. The streets feel emptier today. A few shops are boarded up, a sign of bleak expectations, and the sidewalk traffic is sparse.
Mayra Chavez and her mother let go of their 10 employees after the lockdown started. They were able to bring back only three when the restaurant reopened for take-out orders.
In early April, the mother-and-daughter duo teamed up with World Central Kitchen, a global nonprofit founded by celebrity Chef José Andrés, and the Eat.Learn.Play Foundation founded by Stephen and Ayesha Curry. The two organizations joined forces in recruiting up to 25 Oakland restaurants to prepare 5,000 meals each day for Oakland’s most vulnerable populations and frontline workers during the pandemic. El Huarache Azteca is currently supplying 200 of those hot meals. Chavez said the extra business is allowing the restaurant to stay afloat, for now.
Because Chavez is fully bilingual, she was also able to find information about small business grants and loans that were made available through the city of Oakland. Doing so, she said, is more difficult for business owners who don’t read English. “Translating information into other languages is always an afterthought,” she said.
Maria Sanchez, a program manager at The Unity Council, said she has been overwhelmed with calls from Fruitvale merchants desperate to get help. The nonprofit organization has been working to bridge the gap between the city of Oakland and over 350 small businesses in Fruitvale that the organization supports through its Fruitvale Business Improvement District.
Because many small businesses in Fruitvale are owned and operated by older immigrants who don’t have access to a computer or internet service, Unity Council staff often made in-person-visits to assist their members. Now that social distancing has made that impossible, Sanchez said the organization is forced to rely on phone calls and emails.
“We are doing an enormous effort to inform business owners of the resources available,” she said. “The smaller businesses are in dire need of financial help.”
On March 20, the city of Oakland and the nonprofit Working Solutions announced the Oakland COVID-19 Relief Fund, a $500,000 fund to provide low-income small business owners with emergency grants of $5,000. Final numbers from the city’s Economic and Workforce Development Department revealed that only 90 business owners received the grant, from a pool of over 900 applicants. Approximately 77 of the business owners who received a grant are people of color, and 20 went to business owners who filled out a non-English language application.
Frustration among business owners is becoming palpable in Fruitvale, where some owners are choosing to defy the shelter-in-place directive for non-essential businesses entirely and remain open.
Sanchez says The Unity Council informed business owners as best they could as to which non-essential businesses had to close down. “It’s true, there’s a handful that continue to stay open, and they are doing it out of necessity,” she said. “They have bills to pay. I know it’s not right, but I know the city is trying to let them know that they have to shut their doors for now.”
As of April 15, the Alameda County Sheriff’s COVID-19 compliance email had received 798 complaints about non-essential businesses remaining open. It’s unclear how many Fruitvale businesses have been the subject of a complaint.
Some business owners who are complying with the order, shutting down or scaling back their operations, have expressed frustration with those who are violating the law.
“I get calls from merchants who complain about those businesses defying the order, but what can I do?” said The Unity Council’s Sanchez.
Fashion Palace owner Raúl Maya feels city officials haven’t been accountable when it comes to Fruitvale’s business owners. He says small businesses have been promised financial assistance on a number of past occasions: after the Oscar Grant protests for those affected by vandalism, after the Ghost Ship fire, and recently again during the Bus Rapid Transit construction project that has impacted traffic and parking on International Boulevard. District 5 councilman Noel Gallo, who represents the Fruitvale, was not available to comment.
“The money never came,” said Maya. “Where’s the money?”