One of the most devastating impacts of COVID-19 has been on businesses. When California’s first stay-at-home order was issued in March of 2020, businesses throughout Vacaville had to change their traditional models entirely or find other ways to receive income with the doors closed.
The next year was a tumultuous one that has seen certain businesses open and close in contingency with the COVID case rates, Solano County fluctuating between the purple and red tiers and more businesses close during an emergency declaration.
With Solano now back in the red tier and with vaccines now available to a larger population, there appears to be a bit more hope on the horizon.
Throughout it all, local organizations have been around to provide assistance to local businesses.
Bob Burris, the president and CEO of Solano Economic Development Corporation, estimates that the county lost approximately 24,000 jobs during the pandemic.
“(We) lost it pretty quickly within two months of the beginning of this pandemic and regulations kicking in,” he said.
However, Burris said that as scientists have learned more about the virus and as more businesses have been permitted to open up, Solano has been able to bring about half of those jobs back. Those that have not returned have largely been retailers, restaurants and entertainment-related careers.
“That’s where the largest segment of the jobs that are remaining that we have to try to bring back or transform into something else or retrain some of those workers to do other types of jobs if those types of jobs don’t come back fully,” he said.
Part of Solano EDC’s role during the past year, Burris said, has been working with regional partners to disseminate information. This included creating an animated video campaign providing information on various loan programs, IRS tax benefits and changes, grants and other types of financial programs.
Additionally, Solano EDC is continuing its work with medium and large businesses in the region to provide direct assistance to companies such as Genentech or Thistle, a San Francisco-based nutritional meal kit company that recently opened a warehouse in Vacaville.
“They’ve been expanding rapidly,” Burris said. “Food, especially good food, delivery is important to a lot of households, so (we’re) making people aware of job openings.”
As chair of the California Association for Local Economic Development’s Legislative Action Committee, Burris has been working with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office to ensure there are financial incentives and benefits being provided to companies of all sizes and sectors and have support to expand and hire.
Burris said that job creation has capped, which has often prevented businesses from growing and hiring although he said this might change with more vaccinations.
“Our hope is, in the next three to four months, we’ll start to see some significant growth again,” he said.
The impacts were felt in Vacaville, particularly in its downtown which is home to several retailers and personal services businesses that were unable to operate under the state’s guidelines. This put the leaders of the Downtown Vacaville Business Improvement District into assistance mode. Executive Director Brooke Fox said she launched a weekly Zoom call with downtown merchants where they could ask questions or share concerns or resources.
Downtown Vacaville also launched a webpage with links to local, county and state resources, including guidelines and funding sources. They also launched a directory listing open businesses and contact information for those that did not have open storefronts but continued to operate online.
“We listed all the ways in which people could support businesses through that time and link up with them online,” Fox said.
In essence, Fox said Downtown Vacaville acted as a bit of a “street team for the city,” where staff walked around to distribute guidelines, more than 10,000 surgical masks for employees and applications the city’s grant program and another program to allow businesses to operate outside.
“We worked with the city to develop that and we also worked with them to get the word out on that and to help businesses understand how they could qualify for it,” she said.
The program also included an outdoor dining component, which allowed restaurants to serve customers on an adjacent or nonadjacent property such as sidewalks, private lots and streets closed by the city during certain hours.
Fox said she was “really proud” of the creative ways businesses chose to continue to operate, whether it was restaurants offering takeout or delivery, fitness centers moving workout sessions into their parking lots, Rise & Redemption stepping up its online store and School of Rock offering lessons virtually.
“I really credit our business owners for being flexible and for understanding that they needed to just hang in there, reach their customers, let them know about the changes and try to pivot where they could,” she said. “I feel like business owners responded, and the public also responded by supporting them.”
Fox said she saw a lot of people buying gift cards to support businesses.
However, the city experienced its share of businesses closing. Fox said 26 business licenses closed, although 11 of them simply left the district and the number was close to what it was in 2019. Among the known businesses to have closed throughout the city during the pandemic include the Black Oak Restaurant, Freebirds World Burrito and CREAM. Others simply changed business models such as Outer Limits Virtual Reality, which shifted from an arcade to a VR rental service.
On the other hand, several businesses took a chance on opening during the pandemic, and many found success. These included Hank & Hazel’s Really Good Sausages, Jamrock Island Cuisine, School of Rock, Sonoma Springs Taproom, Cloth Carousel, Stetson Academy, M.O.M.’s Cookery, and Beer:40.
Fox also said that Stems Florist and Backdoor Bistro relocated from Merchant to Main Street.
“We feel there’s a reason they want to be on Main Street, and that’s because it is really the heart of the city,” she said. “We’re excited to have them.”
One area in Solano that saw a lot of activity was the county’s Workforce Development Board. Heather Henry, president and executive director, said the job center kept its doors open as an agency that supported individuals with employment matters.
“Over the past year, we’ve definitely had office traffic of over 10,000 people coming in, trying to apply for unemployment insurance,” she said. “People who didn’t have access to computers would come to us to do that or that needed assistance in applying and had questions with that. That became a big part of our service delivery over the past year: supporting people in applying for unemployment insurance.”
Another major focus for the WDB, Henry said, was “pivoting to respond to the immediate community needs.”
“On the job-seeker side, it was less about helping people get into jobs right away and more about helping them to stabilize and to be able to keep their lights on and keep food on their tables while they were unemployed,” she said.
For small businesses, Henry said the WDB sought to support them by providing grants. With assistance from the county, cities of Benicia, Fairfield and Vallejo as well as large companies like Genentech and Wells Fargo, the WDB was able to contribute $2.5 million into small-business grants for the community.
Henry said the WDB is looking long-term and was particularly concerned about the rate of closures and debt that businesses have been going into.
“We’re going to have to really pay attention to our community and how we support our small businesses because our community relies so much on our small employers,” she said.
Tim Murrill, director of Solano Small Business Development Center, said the organization has worked to provide up to $2 million in grants loans to small businesses through Small Business Administration and the state. SBDC also provided the initial Paycheck Protection Program, which he said amounted to about 2.5 months of employees’ payroll.
“We were helping those clients to sort out what would be the best funding for them and help them with their applications, answer questions and providing assistance there,” he said.
Murrill also said individual cities received funding from the CARES Act and turned that money into small-business grants. SBDC used CARES money to bring on business advisers to assist with training.
“The demand for our services to help these small businesses really went up dramatically over the year,” he said. “We had about 500 clients that we served at the SBDC in 2019. In 2020, we went from that to over 900. We went up over 100 percent in terms of our client load.”
With more businesses starting to open back up, Murrill hopes those that closed their doors will want to come back and restart. If they do, Murrill said SBDC would be on hand to provide support.
“We hope that we’re through the worst of this,” he said. “We would encourage to these business owners to persevere and get through this.”