Brisbane's 7 Mile House, a historic restaurant, sports bar and live music venue. (Photo courtesy of 7 Mile House)

While business has been good this year for 7 Mile House, a historic restaurant and bar in Brisbane, owner Vanessa Garcia is taking things one day at a time.

With California fully reopening on Tuesday – meaning, looser mask and no social distancing requirements for most businesses and activities – some business owners will be holding on to some of the safety measures from the pandemic.

Garcia said she does not know what to expect.

“I just don’t know what’s going to happen after June 15 because everyone’s going to open up. It’s either going to be great or not because obviously we would have more competition,” Garcia said.

Restaurants and retail businesses have been among the hardest hit during the pandemic. Now that things are reopening, some places are having a hard time hiring workers.

For Garcia, after a difficult year of shutdowns, business has been even better than pre-COVID times. Even without live music and with shorter hours, Garcia said, “we’re actually hitting our numbers every day.”

She has been able to hold on to her staff, even as she sees hiring signs outside restaurants offering competitive wages. Still, she is hoping to use additional grant funding to give her staff a bonus.

“There’s a lot of poaching going on right now. I’m just lucky that my staff is really loyal to me,” Garcia said.

She’s in no rush to bring back their live music or start crowding the restaurant again. Instead of packing the tables so tightly that people had to walk sideways between them, Garcia plans to continue outdoor dining and keep tables at a comfortable distance from each other.

“We really like that we have shifted from a sports bar and live music venue to a family restaurant now,” Garcia said. “We are not seen as a dive bar any longer.”

Garcia said the pandemic gave them the chance to reshape their business, with support from local, state and federal programs. She’s thankful for the Paycheck Protection Program loans and business grants from the San Mateo County Economic Development Association, also known as SAMCEDA, and the County of San Mateo.

The local community has also stepped up to support with fundraising and donations of masks and home-grown vegetables.

“I was overwhelmed with how much love we got back because I didn’t know people cared that much about us,” Garcia said.

‘The pandemic lit a fire under me’

For East Palo Alto native and business owner Goro Mitchell, the pandemic gave him the push he needed to expand his business.

Mitchell runs Mitchell’s Environmental LLC, providing environmental testing services like mold testing, disinfecting, flood clean-up, water restoration and carpet cleaning.

The business is just one year old. Whereas the pandemic shuttered some businesses, it helped Mitchell offer more services beyond carpet cleaning, which was the focus of his business pre-pandemic.

“The pandemic has lit a fire under me. I really feel like it’s motivated me and gotten me out of complacency to really grow my business,” Mitchell said.

In March 2020, when the pandemic forced shelter-in-place orders across the Bay Area, Mitchell lost 70 to 80 percent of his business. But that loss gave him time to get the certifications needed to expand his business.

With the help of the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, a business resource center with branches in East Palo Alto and other parts of the Bay Area, Mitchell was able to find clients for his new business.

Disinfecting services were in high demand and within months, business was back to normal.

His goal for the rest of this year is to expand even further so he can hire employees. Right now, he works mostly on his own, operating out of his garage in East Palo Alto.

Mitchell is optimistic about the state’s reopening but concerned about the high cost of living. Between utility bills and the cost of office or warehouse space, expanding his business can get expensive.

“I’m just trying to save a lot of capital because I know there’s going to be a lot to spend,” Mitchell said. Support from PPP loans, San Mateo County’s business grants and Renaissance have been crucial.

He compared Renaissance and the County of San Mateo to true friends, ones that came to his aid in a critical time.

“And it’s not just me. I have a daughter at Duke. I support her. And I have a five-year-old. So it’s not just a business as some kind of concept. It’s family. I’m supporting my family,” Mitchell said.

Ongoing resources available for local businesses

Maintaining a safe environment will be crucial as businesses reopen more fully, according to Tim Russell, program director for Renaissance Mid-Peninsula and South Bay.

Russell encouraged small businesses to take advantage of the free PPE available from SAMCEDA and the County of San Mateo.

Customers need to feel like their safety is just as important as the services the business provides, Russell said.

“Small businesses have to just make sure they’ve got all their I’s dotted and T’s crossed in this new normal,” Russell said. He expects that the reopening will start off slow and build up as customers get more comfortable being out.

Some businesses have been able to successfully pivot but others are still struggling. Restaurants, retail and child care services have been especially hard hit, Russell said.

“I think they (business owners) want to have good thoughts, they want to have good hopes, but the reality of their bills, the reality of the back rent, the reality of some things that have piled up over the pandemic, is still in their face,” he said.

Renaissance continues to provide consulting and grant support to small businesses, especially as the state reopens. And Renaissance plans to be there for businesses for their entire journey, not just in times of crisis.

Individual cities also have a role in supporting businesses, through ‘Shop Local’ campaigns, connecting businesses to resources and expanding outdoor dining programs.

Simon Vuong, Redwood City’s economic development manager, said that in the next few months the city will work on creating a more permanent outdoor dining program, which he says will be critical for the survival and success of some businesses.

So far, outdoor dining is allowed through the end of the year in Redwood City.

“They (business owners) probably want to go ahead and invest long-term in a very attractive structure,” Vuong said. “But they don’t want to do that unless there’s some sort of certainty.”

To expand outdoor dining, the city will have to think through a lot of policy questions, Vuong said, like how many spaces each restaurant will be allowed or how the program could impact city revenue, as outdoor structures could replace parking spaces.

They also want to make the program equitable, so that any business that wants to take advantage of it can do so.

Encouraging people to shop locally is another important element of helping businesses succeed.

SAMCEDA’s president and CEO Rosanne Foust said she’s noticed more people out at restaurants and local businesses. But she said there needs to be more awareness as it is easy for people to just shop online.

“Our downtowns are key parts of our community and they’ve been the hardest hit,” Foust said. “I’d love to see more folks be aware. Pay attention to your downtown. Pay attention to your small businesses. Think about your disposable income. Think about the people in your community that may be hurting. Reach out.”