Photo Credits: Quinn Spooner / Aggie File. A row of businesses on E Street in Downtown Davis.
Davis council members, business owners and employees discuss current state of small businesses and the help the city is offering
Due to decreased student patronage of small businesses in Davis over the past few months, local establishments have had to change how they interact with customers and devise ways to remain functioning. Students leaving Davis to attend school from home have created a large gap in the usual seasonal traffic. According to Davis councilmember Dan Carson, businesses haven’t needed to adjust to challenges like this in the past.
“They’re used to a lot of the students being gone over the summer,” Carson said. “What they’re not used to is the fact that things shut down for the spring, then quiet for the summer and then many people [are] gone for the fall as well. We’ve already lost some businesses. We’re really nervous that we could lose more if this persists.”
Kate Bartschat, a Three Ladies Cafe employee and recent UC Davis graduate, said that the lack of students has led to a dramatic slowing in the cafe’s activity.
“Students are a really big part of our customer base, so we’ve had a really big reduction in a lot of people coming in every day,” Bartschat said. “We have a lot of slow days.”
The City of Davis has implemented a more lenient policy for commercial tenants who aren’t able to pay rent on time by allowing them to pay rent and taxes on their own time. Additionally, the city adopted a moratorium, or legal suspension, of commercial evictions in March.
“State law, the state constitution, doesn’t allow us to waive away what people owe us for their utility bills, but it does allow us to suspend [them],” Carson said. “Basically saying, if you have to pay us late because you don’t have the money, we’re not going to impose any penalties on you for doing so, and we’re not going to set any set deadline for you to pay taxes.”
Alyssa Bulfer, owner of Let Them Eat Cake, has made adjustments such as reducing store hours and operating with a staff of just herself and one other employee. Although her business isn’t in danger, she expressed her gratitude for having a sense of security in knowing she won’t be evicted.
“We are super thankful that we have an accommodating landlord,” Bulfer said. “They have been working with us to see how they can help. But also, I don’t think, as far as my personal situation, that it would ever come to that point. But it’s comforting to know we’re not going to be evicted.”
With limited store hours, choosing a busier time of day for store operations is essential for both Bulfer and the customers.
“So on the weekends when we’re open, we’re only open Saturday and Sunday from 10-2, I feel like that is kind of a prime time and I feel like people know that’s the only time when we’re open, so both of those days we’re kind of slammed the whole day with people coming in and picking stuff up,” Bulfer said. “The nice thing is it’s a pretty short period of time. So it’s something that we can handle. It does get a little hectic with just the two of us.”
Unlike Let Them Eat Cake, some businesses aren’t allowed to operate at all. Movie theatres such as Davis Varsity Theatre haven’t been able to open their doors since the beginning of the year, and are being limited to using methods like renting out movies that can be streamed from home. The city has made special accommodations for Davis Varsity Theatre, as it has proven to be a hub of the downtown area, according to Carson.
“Just a meeting or two ago, we re-negotiated the agreement we had with the Varsity Theater downtown, which, you know, when things are good, has been a terrific anchor […] and so we sharply reduced their rent because they are not under the shelter in place orders—they’re not allowed to operate,” Carson said. “And so rather than stick to our agreement that we had for them to pay money they didn’t have, we’ve given them new terms that we think will allow them to exit the other side of this.”
The Davis City Council has also offered help by recruiting a third party to give free counseling to businesses who seek it and free permits from the city that allow businesses who find it difficult to operate indoors to set up outdoors, in parking lots and streets.
“We have two streets where this is going Friday through Sunday and we’re thinking it’s going to go on for October and maybe even beyond, depending on how this goes,” Carson said. “It’s been fairly successful, but we’ve tried to cut through the red tape to let folks do so.”
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) act, passed in spring, is one of the federal programs that offers relief to workers and small businesses due to the impacts of COVID-19, but excludes cities with smaller populations. The City of Davis received some aid, but the funds have been focused on the city’s more pressing needs like emergency services. This is why free consulting provided by The Greater Sacramento Small Business Development Center (SBDC) has become one of the options the city has made available to businesses.
“Because we got left out of that federal bill, it doesn’t put us in a position to do all we would like to help folks,” Carson said. “But what we were able to do for our business partners was we helped support a program that provides business assistance, including counseling on how to get Small Business Administration [SBA] loans. We’ve got folks who can provide free expertise and counseling to any small business that asks for it.”
According to Carson, the city has had to take action to deal with a projected 20 million dollar loss of city revenue, mainly from sales tax and hotel taxes, because of the impacts of the current recession.
“We know we still have a very important responsibility to help our businesses to survive this and of course, more directly to help those persons who become unemployed or underemployed as a result of what’s going on,” Carson said.
Written by: Lyra Farrell — firstname.lastname@example.org