NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.—As Orange County’s small business owners fight off economic predictions of mass closures, some are banding together and fighting for their survival through a string of protests.
An estimated 600 small business owners, restaurateurs, and supporters gathered at Bob Henry Park in Newport Beach Dec. 13 for a nonpartisan protest against the regional stay-at-home orders, which includes an outdoor dining ban.
Orange County is part of a regional Southern California stay-at-home order that began Dec. 7 when intensive care units at hospitals reached 85 percent capacity.
“People need to realize that survival isn’t political—survival is just that—no business owner right now is making money,” John Reed, owner of Newport Beach’s Bosscat Kitchen & Libations, told The Epoch Times. “We’re just trying to open, we’re just trying to do it safely, and we’re just trying to survive.”
Event organizer Alexandra Taylor—who spearheaded the gathering alongside the Accountability Political Action Committee (PAC)—said small business owners were eager to work and get back to normal.
“It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you are on: Thousands of people are in jeopardy of losing work, their businesses, losing their livelihood,” Taylor told The Epoch Times. “The majority of people are already living paycheck-to-paycheck in these industries, anything besides big business is losing everything, with no government assistance.”
Small business owners aren’t looking for handouts, she said.
“At this point, the fear in these employees’ eyes that my clients see—and I see in their eyes, in the owners’ eyes—are frightening not knowing when their next paycheck will come,” Taylor said.
Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner also spoke at the event, saying, “We wouldn’t be here if the government were actually following the science.”
More than 50 restaurants in Orange County have banded together to create the Nonpartisan Coalition of Small Business Owners, and are vowing to remain open despite state restrictions.
Taylor’s next point of action is to create a committee with key Orange County restaurateurs to promote reopening safely on a larger scale, which she hopes will include Los Angeles County business owners.
Protesters held signs that read “People Not Politics” and “Open Safe OC” and marched down 17th Street to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”
Chef Andrew Gruel, owner of Slapfish in Huntington Beach and former judge on Food Network’s “Food Truck Face Off,” told protesters, “It’s all about helping our neighbors out because it’s incredibly clear that the government’s not going to do that for us.”
He said his restaurant has pioneered efforts to raise funds for other struggling businesses through an initiative called the 86 Restaurant Struggle. During the past weekend, the campaign raised $10,000. By Dec. 14, the figure rose to $25,000. All proceeds go to struggling restaurateurs and out-of-work employees.
“If government isn’t going to help us, then we’re going to step in as capitalistic small business to help out and help our fellow communities,” Gruel said.
“This is nonpartisan—we all want to make it matter, and the way in which we can all do something small and help is so that we do something small, each one of us, so that one person doesn’t have to do something big, so that we’re not all out here putting targets on our backs.”
Gruel said he’s cut 20 percent of his employees’ hours across his six Orange County restaurants, which has taken a psychological toll on everyone. He’s seen a 50 percent decrease in overall sales.
“When the shutdowns are just thrown on us at the last minute, we don’t necessarily have time to plan for it,” Gruel told The Epoch Times.
But at his Huntington Beach location of Slapfish, he’s doing better than normal because customers are dining outside in support of his defiance against state health ordinances. But his budget is still tight; he pays $12,000 per month in rent.
“We’re using cash flow that doesn’t exist in order to pay our landlord there. We’re only doing $6,000 to $7,000 a week in sales, so that’s like a 50 percent rent base. Your rent in a business is supposed to be less than 10 percent, so we’re just burning money,” he said.
Gruel said if the restrictions continue, California will see “mass closure of all these businesses.”
“In general,” he said, “I’m sad, but then I’m pissed because, you know, we’ve thrown in years and years of blood, sweat, and tears, just to be told ‘sorry, you’re done.’”
While the restaurant industry endures many seasons, Gruel said “any regular up and down within the industry pales in comparison to this. This is the mandatory shutdown of our customer base.”
Gruel’s restaurants were rejected for Paycheck Protection Program loans, but he qualified for an alternative government assistance program. However, the funds, estimated to be around $200,000 have not yet been distributed.
“We’ve tried our hardest to eat a lot of this cost, which of course has been at the expense of our profitability we’re already losing,” he said. “That’s the thing, this whole time frame has been a loss. It exacerbates the loss when we’re trying to hold on to so many employees, but we feel like it’s the right thing to do.”
As of Dec. 14, Orange County reportedly received 3,121 daily new COVID-19 cases, 1,236 of which are currently hospitalized and 284 are currently in Intensive Care Units.