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Rural Markets Struggle to Stay Afloat 

Being an essential business isn't protecting small community hubs

click to enlarge Fieldbrook Market and Eatery.

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Fieldbrook Market and Eatery.

On April 29, Fieldbrook Market and Eatery owners Kelli Costa and her husband Ross announced through a Facebook post that they were temporarily closing the market, no longer able to make ends meet in the face of the shelter-in-place order aimed at slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"[The market] is the hub of this whole community — people depend on it for a lot of things," Costa says. "[Closing] it was a hard decision."

But the market is far from alone, as many small grocery stores in rural areas have been hit hard by the countywide efforts to halt the virus, even though they are deemed "essential" businesses and allowed to continue operations. Supply chain issues and the fact that some customers are bypassing quick trips to the local store for larger, more infrequent shopping trips in town have combined to create a challenging reality for the markets, which have long been considered essential by local residents.

In Fieldbrook, Kelli Costa says the first hard decision was to lay off a majority of her staff and to begin working at the market by herself, as she knew she soon wouldn't be able to afford to keep them on.

"It was challenging — I had to manage the store by myself," Costa says. "For the first four weeks, we were extremely busy, so I had to wake up early to open the store, stock groceries and I had to bake, all in one order."

At the same time, down at the Petrolia General Store, which sits more than an hour's drive from Fortuna or Garberville, business began slowing down so manager Jane Dexter says she had to reduce her staff's hours, though she has not laid anyone off.

About four and a half weeks after the shelter-in-place order went into effect, Costa says she started to see her grocery sales dropping and at the same time she was struggling to get supplies for the store.

"I have two big vendors that I purchase from. I'd make an order and I get a quarter. Not even half my order would show up," Costa says. "And as a little grocery store, I depend on those vendors."

Other markets were also struggling to find groceries. Dexter says she only has two vendors that deliver out to her store and she has to travel into town for other items. It's the same case for Honeydew Country Store, says manager Dan Miyake, who also has been struggling to find dry and canned goods.

As shelter in place went into effect throughout the state at the end of March, a lot of people began "panic buying," flocking to the nearest grocery store to stock up on food. According to a consumer research survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation, a public education organization based in Washington, D.C., one of the top food shopping concerns among those surveyed was running out of staple items. The research survey also found that "42 percent of survey takers reported buying more packaged foods than usual over the past month."

As larger stores' shelves were stripped bare, so too was the ability of small stores to stock what their vendors could no longer deliver.

But supply chains and changing buying habits aren't the only challenges facing these rural stores. Each store also needs to make sure employees and customers are following all social distancing guidelines, sanitizing common area surfaces throughout the day, while making sure people are staying 6 feet apart and wearing facial coverings.

Instead of letting people shop inside, Petrolia General Store changed its business to window service only. Dexter says window service is a bit challenging, but it's a way to make sure everyone is safe.

"We're just running around trying to get people their groceries," she says. "It's pretty hectic fetching people's groceries."

Dexter adds that she made the decision to switch to window service after a string of people from out of town stopped in saying they were on their way to Shelter Cove to hike.

"We started seeing lots of people coming up from the Bay Area escaping the shelter-in-place order to hike the Lost Coast," Dexter says. "It was more people than we see during the tourism season. It had a lot of the locals really worried."

Costa is taking the time her store is closed as an opportunity to think about what she needs to do to reopen when the time is right. One of her biggest worries, she says, is bringing on her employees with the mandated facial covering order.

On April 24, Humboldt County Public Health Officer Teresa Francovich issued an order requiring everyone in the county to wear a facial covering in any indoor facility other than their home, in any enclosed areas or any outdoor space where individuals are unable to maintain at least 6 feet of physical distance from each other at all times.

The order came after the Centers for Disease Control cited a recent study that found many of those carrying the novel coronavirus disease were "asymptomatic" and "that even those who eventually develop symptoms ('pre-symptomatic') can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms."

But requiring employees to mask up for eight-hour shifts is a big ask.

"It's a bit more challenging when you're wearing a mask [cooking] over a grill and it's hot and it's 80 degrees," Costa says.

Dexter echoes the same concern. The mandated mask order was one of her biggest worries for herself and her employees, who now have to wear them for eight to nine hours a day.

Costa says that she also has to think about bringing back her employees — some of whom are college students that went back home to shelter in place with their families — for a short time when she may have to let them go again. She says she began applying for the Paycheck Protection Program loan, a U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) loan that helps small businesses keep their employers on payroll under the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES). According to the SBA website, it will forgive the loan if a business keeps all employees on the payroll for eight weeks and at least 75 percent of the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

"I started an application for the PPP loan ... but there were some nuances to that. One is that once you receive that money you have to spend it within eight weeks — that'd be somewhere in June," Costa says. "The caveat to that is that all my staff is doing really well on unemployment and I basically have to compete with that."

The CARES Act also boosted unemployment benefits to include $600 per week throughout the U.S. California's maximum unemployment weekly benefit is $450, meaning if someone on unemployment is receiving the maximum benefit amount on top of the $600 from the federal government they would be receiving a total of $1,050 per week for a total of $4,200 per month, which equates to about $26.25 an hour.

"To try to get everyone to come back, which would cut them off of unemployment, and then the eight weeks runs out and business closes, where does that leave them?" Costa says.

In the meantime, Costa says she is going to try to look ahead at the timeline, consider all of the upcoming decisions from the state and county health officials of when the shelter-in-place order will be lifted or which businesses will be allowed to continue operations, to determine when she'll be able to reopen the market and eatery.

Dexter says it will take some perseverance.

"Hopefully we can all keep our heads up and get through this together," she says. "We're tough. We can do it."

Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the Journal and prefers she/her pronouns. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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Iridian Casarez

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Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the North Coast Journal.

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