Solano County had some of the first COVID-19 cases in California and has been one of the last Bay Area counties to move out of the tightest restrictions on indoor activities under California’s latest reopening plan.
On Sept. 22, Solano, San Mateo and Alameda counties moved up from the most restrictive of the four color-coded levels of risk for infection spread, allowing restaurants and movie theaters to reopen inside at 25% occupancy, malls and retail at half-capacity, and gyms at 10%.
“Moving to the red (tier) is a breath of air for storefronts, from business services to anyone with any inside operations, like restaurants and event centers,” said Bob Burris, CEO of Solano Economic Development Corp. “It allows them to hire back some employees and hire some full time.”
Employment in these major Solano job categories, according to Robert Eyler of Economic Forensics & Analytics, have been the hardest hit by the pandemic economic lockdowns this year: leisure and hospitality such as hotels, theme parks and movie theaters (down 31.3% in August from a year before); personal services such as hair and nail salons (down 27.1%); and retail (down 12.4%). Nongovernment employment was down by 20,100 jobs from a year before, a decline of 10%.
Some of those Solano jobs have come back. Hospitality employment was up 18.5% from April through August; services, up 9.4% and retail, up 9.2%, Eyler noted in a joint presentation with the Solano business booster group on Thursday.
Vallejo has been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic, with one-third of the unemployment centered there.
It’s been another blow to Solano’s largest city, which has been slowly progressing out of bankruptcy in 2008, with Mare Island commercial redevelopment picking up, a high-speed ferry terminal opening and bottlenecks with the permit process being addressed, according to James Cooper, head of the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce.
“Knock on wood, there are 30-plus projects looking to move forward in the city,” Cooper said.
But at the moment, the Six Flags theme park remains shuttered under the state virus restrictions, and the ferry terminal is quiet because of a big reduction in commuter traffic to San Francisco. “We’re excited and nervous.”
After Travis Credit Union stepped forward with a $1 million grant program for small businesses in the early days of the pandemic, local governments have been repurposing their state community development block grants or general fund dollars to fund grants to help small businesses stay in operation. Fairfield came up with $400,000; Vacaville, $450,000; and Benicia, $300,000, with the Benicia Industrial Park Association ponying up $250,000 for its Businesses Helping Business program, according to Heather Henry of the Workforce Investment Board of Solano County.
Her organization also launched a grant program in April that has grown to $250,000 with contributions from Genentech, Wells Fargo and federal money.
In September, Solano County approved $2 million for the new Rebuild Solano’s Small Business grant program, budgeted to help as many as 400 firms based on the board’s past experience of needs averaging $5,000 apiece.
About 200 applications have come in, with requests topping $5,000 each. Because the grants can be applied to outlays other than payroll, rent and utilities dating back to April 1, the grant requests have evolved from requests to cover the costs of moving employees to remote work to what’s needed to bring workers back, such as clear plastic barriers, sanitation supplies and personal protective equipment, Henry said.
“Restaurants that had opened and then closed and had produce they had purchased that went bad,” she said. “We’re also seeing more than before the pandemic that business supply chains are being disrupted.”
Before the pandemic, Lake County had been dealing with economic and emotional wallops from several massive wildfires in the past five years, according to Mellissa Fulton, leader of the Lake County Chamber of Commerce.
Napa and Lake counties were the first in the North Bay to enter the state’s red tier of reopening, but a big blow to Lake’s tourism came from uncertainty over whether hotels would be allowed to stay open, which caused major bass fishing tournaments to be moved to other cities around Clear Lake or relocated out of the county.
Other than pointing local businesses to federal and other grants, loans and aid money to make it through the pandemic, the chamber is working with Lake County Economic Development Corp., operated by Community Development Services, on a training and assistance program to help local entrepreneurs embrace e-commerce.
“Some people have not embraced technology to the extent that they cannot initiate online sales without help,” Fulton said.
But a problem for remote work and learning in the county is lack of broadband internet service in many rural areas, according to Joe Casteel, chamber board president and a partner in Lake County Broadband Solutions, which provides wireless internet connections to rural homes.
Mendocino County as of the last statewide determination of reopening readiness on Sept. 29 remained in at the most restrictive level, color-coded purple.
Nearly 1,500 jobs were lost at the roughly 500 Mendocino County companies that completed the pandemic impact survey between April and June, with losses of around $40 million, according to MaryAnne Petrillo, CEO of West Business Development Center for Mendocino and Lake counties.
A round of 47 $5,000 grants out of a $223,000 pool was completed a month ago, overseen by the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, West Small Business Development Centers and the local Economic Development & Financing Corp., and fundraising is underway for a new pool of $400,000. About 80 applications came in for each of the rounds, and the participating groups had to pick from the anonymized applications which business plans had the greatest chance of success, according to Diann Simmons, operations manager of EDFC.
The organization is working with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board on a $1 million pool for local small-business loans, based on a revolving grant from the federal Economic Development Administration.
Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at [email protected] or 707-521-4256.