Many small businesses impacted by the pandemic in East San Jose are falling through the cracks, so some community members came together and formed a safety net to catch them.
That safety net is the East San Jose COVID Relief Fund, which has raised about $50,000 through community donations and distributed no-strings-attached grants to small businesses in the city’s hardest hit ZIP codes.
On Thursday, the fund distributed its second tranche of grants, ranging from $3,500 to $5,000 to owners of nail salons, restaurants, catering services and child daycares in the eastside.
“I feel relieved to get the grant,” said Huong Hong, owner of Mount Pleasant Nail Salon. “That will help me stay open at least almost two months which will give us time to rebuild our business.”
Hong said it’s because summer is typically the busiest time of the year. But still, she said the nail salon is holding on by a thread.
“Just because it opened up again, does not mean that everything just goes back to the way it was,” Hong said.
Despite state health orders allowing nail salons to operate at 50 percent capacity, because of the county’s orange tier standing, Hong said her store is only reaching 30 to 40 percent capacity.
“Most of my clients they do the labor, the hard labor, and a lot of that is gone,” Hong said. “And so, if they don’t have money, how would they support the local businesses in their area? It’s just a complete circle.”
Hong said she feels like small businesses are forgotten. She applied to several different federal programs like the Paycheck Protection Program but said she did not receive any compensation.
“I apply for the PPP, but they, you know before they even reach the small guys like us, they run out funds,” Hong said. “All the big corporation that got all the money first and the little ones like us slips through a lot of times.”
Lulu Cornejo, owner of Cornejo’s Catering, which has been servicing the East San Jose community for more than 20 years, shared a similar sentiment.
She said she applied to several programs but the funding she received from the East San Jose COVID Relief Fund is the first financial support she has received besides from neighbors and friends.
“I applied to grants from Facebook and the government, but they all told me they ran out of money,” Cornejo said. “Before this I was only getting help from friends and family who ordered flowers, they ordered something to help me do some business.”
Cornejo also emphasized that this East San Jose COVID Relief Fund was a much easier application process because of the support she got from the local nonprofit Prosperity Lab, which facilitated the grant application process.
She said the nonprofit staff “spoke our language and understood our problems.”
Mimi Hernandez, executive director of the Prosperity Lab that seeks to support the region’s small businesses and budding entrepreneurs, said her staff helps owners find the appropriate documents, provides free classes on improving e-commerce and gives other business advice.
“This fund signifies to me is not about cash or catching up on bills, but rather an investment from the (community members), into our communities, and letting these folks know that they are not alone,” Hernandez said at a news conference held at Cornejo’s Catering.
There, the energy was hopeful and happy as checks were distributed to six different small business owners.
But for Rolando Bonilla, the man who started the fund, there was a sharpness in his tone as he called on the city and San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo to do more.
“We’re having study sessions about whether we should go door to door to figure out what they need. What they need is no strings attached capital today,” said Bonilla, who serves as the vice chairman for the San Jose Planning Commission. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that this economy is hurting. These families are hurting.”
Bonilla started the fund on Jan. 4, days after he was released from the hospital after battling COVID-19.
He said he tried asking the city, the Silicon Valley Organization and other big companies for funding but the answer “when it comes to East San Jose has been ‘no gracias.'”
“But you know who has stepped up: small businesses, everyday folks out there throughout the region,” Bonilla continued.
He is still pushing and requested a $6.5 million budget allocation from the city but is worried leaders won’t find the money for East San Jose.
“This isn’t just about losing businesses. This is about how people are going to provide for their families. This is about making sure that we don’t lose these folks as part of our community because we need them in our community,” Bonilla said. “The city needs to step up.”
The East San Jose COVID Relief Fund is still accepting donations. Those interested can write a check to the Prosperity Lab with “East San Jose COVID Relief Fund” in the memo and send it to their address at 2150 N 1st St Suite 436, San Jose, CA 95131.
Small businesses in East San Jose can also apply by visiting the nonprofit’s website at https://www.prosperitylab.org.