And that’s especially true regarding the ever-changing COVID-19 regulatory guidelines and why recent mixed messages from leaders and health officials have left some local restaurant owners frustrated, confused and more concerned about the future than ever before.
“It’s super frustrating because you really don’t know who to believe,” said Mark Purnell, a co-owner of Five Ten Bistro in downtown Merced. “First you hear from local authorities that they are not going to come after you if you open up your dining area and follow safety guidelines, then the next day, they warn you that restaurants are governed by current state health laws and that the state can come after you, and take your business license away.”
The coronavirus pandemic, along with strict public safety orders from health officials, have shuttered business operations across Merced County since mid-March, and the result is a devastated local economy. Currently, the county has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the state as workers continue to face layoffs. A recent local survey showed more than 40 percent of the 90 businesses that responded had lost 75 percent or more of their revenue.
Nevertheless, the owners of small retail shops and restaurants in Merced were hearing from various local authorities last week that the region was indeed entering Stage 2 of the state’s reopening process, and it was now OK for those who qualify to “open up” as long as they follow health guidelines designed to stop the spread of the virus.
Under Stage 2, in-person retail sales and dine-in eating are permitted. Bars are excluded. Stage 2 also includes the gradual reopening of outdoor museums, shopping centers, office-based workplaces, childcare facilities, swap meets, all manufacturing industries supporting retail and all logistics industries supporting retail.
Governor Newsom has already announced that the state can begin moving into “Stage 2” of modifying the “Stay at Home” Executive Order if certain conditions are met. And late last Friday, the Merced County Board of Supervisors followed suit and took unanimous action to request the governor “accelerate” the reopening of this particular rural economy and provide more control for local jurisdictions. Also, during the Merced City Council meeting on May 4, leaders expressed strong support for allowing customers to shop inside small retail stores.
Then some owners started receiving encouraging calls.
“Last week, we were told by the County Health Department we could open for sit-down dinners if we followed the guidelines,” said Greg Parle, the owner of the landmark Branding Iron Restaurant in downtown Merced. “We read the rules and we’re following them. We took out tables so we have six foot spacing. We have hand sanitizers all over the building. We ordered thermometers.”
The Branding Iron has been closed for nearly two months, but Parle started immediate plans to reopen the venue for dine-in services, in addition to take-out orders. It was the same story just around the corner at Five Ten Bistro and Bella Luna Bistro.
Chef Vinnie DeAngelo, the Bella Luna owner, told the Times his dining rooms were set to open but the bar area was closed as per current health regulations. DeAngelo even removed the bar stools, though he had heard rumors of other bars in town operating in defiance of the official Health Order.
“We want to abide by all the rules,” DeAngelo pointed out. “We are doing what we can to serve the community just like we have done for decades.”
Wait, Not So Fast
Early Wednesday morning, those same restaurant owners started receiving emails from the county’s Health Department indicating the restaurants could not serve customers inside the dining rooms.
So what happened with COVID-19 guidelines between last week and this week?
While it appeared like the green light was given, the fine print said otherwise.
In reality, the county leaders were in agreement but the “readiness plan” had to be submitted to the state. That happened on Monday. And health officials made it clear on Tuesday that local plan isn’t considered valid until an approved plan is posted on the website of the California Department of Public Health.
It wasn’t clear before the Times press deadline earlier this week when that green light would officially happen. However, there were some defiant statements by county supervisors at their regular board meeting on Tuesday.
“We’ve jumped through the hoops, now we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do,” said Supervisor Scott Silveira.
Fellow Supervisor Daron McDaniel added: “If Merced County’s eligible, to me that’s a green light.”
Parle said he feels like the future of his business is in the hands of the State of California.
The Branding Iron, at 640 W. 16th Street, has been in business since 1952, and its neon sign showing a cowboy branding a calf is considered a historical landmark.
“I’ve never had to do anything like this,” Parle told the Times. “It’s crazy.
“What we understand today could be totally wrong tomorrow. … This is the way we’ve been living for two months. … Hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales are gone forever.
“We could go under by the end of the year, there’s no doubt. If the government doesn’t step in and do some positive things, there’s going to be a lot of bankruptcies of small businesses.
“You only need to drive down Main Street, and you will see there are ‘for rent’ signs all over.
“Branding Iron has been here for almost 70 years, and we would like another 10 or 20.”
Purnell of Five Ten Bistro says his partners have already burned through personal savings and what they could get from the first rounds of the Payroll Protection Program.
“We are hearing rumors that this shutdown may go on to August, and if those rumors are true, we will be forced to close our doors and leave,” he said.
Retail shops open doors
It wasn’t quite business as usual, but several lovely ladies eyeing the garment racks were a welcome sign this week for Bree Migliazzo, the owner of Helen & Louise in downtown Merced.
“We’re super excited,” Migliazzo said. “We’ve had customers all day long. People just want to get out of the house and have some social interaction. Even the husbands who came with their wives appeared to be enjoying themselves. It’s been fun for a change.”
Migliazzo’s designer fashion store on the corner of 18th and Canal streets opened up last weekend in time for Mother’s Day.
The store — a downtown icon since 1944 — had been closed for nearly two months, with the exception of a short-lived period when Migliazzo tried to do curbside sales.
Migliazzo said she was convinced opening the store was the right thing to do after watching the City Council meeting on May 4. She hasn’t heard anything from the county about a change of plans for Stage 2.
Uncertainty at the County Administration Building and in Sacramento didn’t seem to faze Mike Siegel, the owner of the Cigar Monkey shop in downtown Merced.
“I received a call and a personal visit from the sheriff, and we’re open for business,” Siegel told the Times on Tuesday as he smoked one of his high-end products.
Siegel said he tried to stay open when the health orders first came down, but eventually an “anonymous tip” led to a uniformed city police officer showing up at his doors with a cease and desist order.
“Apparently we weren’t on Gavin’s essential list,” Siegel said with a smirk.
Siegel said he has put proper safety precautions in place, and that keeping customers safe is “really just common sense.” He added that he is encouraged by a new French study that suggests smokers could be better protected than others from the novel coronavirus because nicotine blocks its docking sites.
However, not every downtown shop owner is acting quickly to open up. Melissa Eisner of Coffee Bandits says she’s not convinced it’s the right time for customers to be hanging out and drinking java like they did just two months ago.
“I know people who have come down with the virus,” she told the Times. “I want my customers to be safe. I don’t want put anyone at risk.”
For the time being, Eisner said she is waiting for more guidance from health authorities and doing some remodeling to her shop’s interior.
The Trigger System
Local health officials revealed Tuesday that if Merced County is approved for full Stage 2 status, the reopening may not last if COVID-19 cases or deaths increase sharply.
They listed benchmarks that could “trigger” a second wave of closures, or a tightening of modifications referred to as the “dimmer switch.”
These triggers include:
• Average COVID-19 confirmed cases over a span of five days that are consistently triple the current rate of three to six daily cases.
• The case doubling rate (currently projected at 30 days) is cut in half to less than two weeks.
• The positive case testing rate (currently at 6.2 percent) rises over 10 percent.
• The hospitalization rate surges past 20 percent from the current rate of 12.7 percent.
Stimulus, relief efforts
Merced County and its six cities launched a new website dedicated to assisting businesses and preparing them for when the state decides to open additional factions of the economy.
The website, reopenmercedcounty.com, includes resources, guidelines, event information, and a survey local businesses can take that will allow the county and cities to gather details that will help us apply for grants and identify needs in the business community.
“The idea of this site is to get our business owners better prepared to reopen when that time comes,” said Chairman Rodrigo Espinoza of the Merced County Board of Supervisors. “When the governor pulls the trigger to reopen another group of businesses, we don’t want them all at the starting line, we want them as close to the finish line as possible.”
Times reporter Beverly Barela contributed to this report.