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Coronavirus: Stress mounts for small business owners

Jazmine Salazar, a cashier at Adel International Food Market in San Carlos, rings up a customer. The store saw a surge in sales ahead of the Persian New Year, as well as a temporary spike in panic buying caused by the coronavirus. (Photo by Hoda Emam/Bay City News Foundation)

The crisis surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus has already forced some small businesses to close their doors, and firms that remain open are expressing growing anxiety about what lies ahead.

An informal survey of small retailers in San Mateo County reveals fear many have over a range of uncertainties, from shaky supply lines to the loss of customers.

Mohamesh Singh, at Islander Halal Meat and Grocers in San Mateo, said the current crisis could force the business to close for good.

“If we don’t have business, we won’t be able to cope with the rent,” said Singh, who along with his wife opened Islander Halal 10 years ago.

In neighboring San Carlos, Papachay Peruvian Coffee remains open, but the business has been hard hit by business customers who have closed their doors.

“Most of our sales are wholesale for restaurants, coffee shops and corporate offices,” said Papachay co-owner Juliana Gambriazano, “so a big part of our sales has decreased since most people are working at home.”

Cheryl Angeles, president of the San Mateo Area Chamber of Commerce, said that her members, not surprisingly, are stressed and anxious, with the greatest impact being felt among businesses that provide personal services.

“Dentists, massage, hair salons — anything that has to do with close contact will be affected most,” said Angeles, whose organization represents 555 small- to medium-sized members. She said she hopes to see tax breaks, business loans and delayed rent payments to give small businesses a chance to survive the crisis.

The growing crisis has not been without a short-term upside for some.

On a recent morning at Adel International Food Market in San Carlos, manager Emerita Topete was busy restocking shelves. Not unlike large grocery chains, the ethnic specialty shop has seen higher sales than usual recently, reflecting both heavy crisis-inspired buying, and demand for goods for last week’s Persian New Year dinners.

“Last week, we noticed customers buying three to four bags of rice when they usually only buy one,” said Topete.

Similarly, at Islander, whose customers are primarily Indian, Samoan and Fijian, Singh saw an initial spike in sales of flour, rice and canned goods as fears about coronavirus grew. But neither grocer thinks the surge will last.

“After the New Year, we expect sales to go down,” Topete said.

None of these businesses, to be sure, is throwing in the towel. Instead, they are trying to adapt to their new circumstances. Gambriazio said Papachay coffee, for example, is working to offset the loss of business deliveries by increasing online orders and home delivery service.

But Gambriazio, who started Papachay with her husband four years ago to source coffee beans from their farms in Peru, said she never expected business to tank as dramatically as it has.

And she added that she finds herself wondering, “How will we manage to pay the fixed bills, the ones that keep coming no matter what you do, no matter if you are working or not?”