Amid coronavirus stay-at-home order, which San Diego businesses are ‘essential’?

Victor Marcus, a produce clerk at the Ralphs supermarket in the La Jolla Square shopping center, restocks produce at the store, early in the morning, March 19, 2020 in San Diego, California.
(Howard Lipin / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

With Gov. Gavin Newsom’s order for all Californians to ‘shelter in place,’ many are wondering: What does that actually mean?


At an area pet store, it was a typical Thursday night, March 19, 2020. Until it wasn’t. As soon as California’s governor ordered the state’s residents to stay at home and for all nonessential businesses to close, panicked pet owners picked up their phones.

“All of sudden everyone started calling in, very concerned about their pet food needs,” said Charles Valentine, who is the store manager at Kahoots Pet Store in Rancho Penasquitos. “I assured them that we were going to stay open.”

It was a scenario that likely played out across San Diego County with the definition of the word “essential,” not wholly defined by the state, now the make-it-or-break-it business term of the COVID-19 pandemic. The lack of clarity carried into Friday with some neighborhood barbershops, doughnut makers, dog groomers and other businesses deciding they were either exempt or willing to endure the potential public shame of staying open. That’s because enforcement, at least for now, is being left up to the universal honor code.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandate is clear, but only for about a dozen or so different industries. Grocery stores, gas stations, banks, laundromats and pharmacies are essential and can remain open. Alternatively, others — dine-in restaurants, bars and clubs, entertainment venues, gyms, public events, and conventions centers — must close immediately.

But what about the hundreds or thousands of businesses that fall into the massive gray area not identified in the order? And what exactly is “essential” in today’s totally unrecognizable brick-and-mortar world? As it stands, lattes are still being served through Starbucks drive-throughs, craft beers are available for pickup at local breweries, and cable TV and Internet sales staff are still reporting to Spectrum stores.

Basically, businesses appear to be making the call on their own, with some leaning on the guidance provided to individual municipalities earlier in the week.

When seven counties in the San Francisco Bay Area instituted their shelter-in-place mandate, officials included a wider range of businesses in their definition of essential, including hardware stores, plumbers, some legal services and newspapers. Friday evening, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer clarified that home builders also fall into the go-to-work bucket.

Retail matters

Just Thursday, GameStop made headlines for a memo it sent to employees, assuring staff that the video game store was essential alongside groceries and pharmacies and should therefore be exempt from enforced closures. The reasoning? The company sells equipment essential to working from home; devices many workers need now.

But not all electronics retailers are taking the same stance. Best Buy, for example, was open Friday in San Diego County, but only for limited shopping. A staffer met shoppers at the door and escorted them directly to the items they needed. Shoppers needed to know what they were buying. No browsing allowed. As of Saturday, however, Best Buy is shutting down its stores to the public, only allowing curbside pickup.

Although sheltering in place will surely spike demand for items like books, puzzles and games, most bookstores are also closing down. Barnes and Noble, which had remained open as of Thursday, closed Friday morning. Staffers say the closure is immediate and indefinite.

Several local bookstores had already shuttered their physical stores earlier this week, including Bluestocking Books in Hillcrest and Mysterious Galaxy in the Midway District. South Park’s The Book Catapult had limited customer interaction to in-store pickups but sent out a memo to customers Friday morning with changes to that plan.

As of Saturday, no customers will be allowed in the store, even for pickups. Jennifer Powell, who co-owns The Book Catapult with her husband Seth Marko, spent Friday driving around San Diego to make deliveries to customers’ doors instead.

Powell said it’s been difficult to balance two major priorities: protect the public and protect the business.

“Believe me, we’ve done nothing but think about how to thread that needle,” she said.

For now, The Book Catapult has decided home deliveries are the safest bet, although Powell’s not sure that drop-offs can continue should stricter mandates roll out.

Real estate reality check

The “essential” label also proved to be a murky designation for San Diego County’s real estate agents, who just a few weeks ago were flying high in the hot housing market. As of press time, the California Association of Realtors had yet to release its opinion on what shelter in place meant for its roughly 190,000 members.

Gary Kent, a La Jolla-based real estate agent, said he believes agents fall under the financial services label, which is one of the 16 so-called “critical infrastructure structures” identified by the state. But he’s not planning on conducting business as usual.

“It is socially unacceptable to hold an open house,” he said.

Other agents said they would continue with the social distancing practices already implemented. Bonnie Phelps, of Palomar Mountain Real Estate, said she already doesn’t do open houses and is now also trying to maintain distance between clients.

She recently showed a 1940s, 640-square-foot cabin to a prospective buyer. Instead of giving her usual agent tour, she simply opened the door and let the client walk around. She waited outside.

“We were laughing and talking, but we were keeping our distance,” Phelps said of showing the $75,000 cabin.

Evan Morris, a Golden Hill-based real estate agent who also does property management, said that he was less sure about what the governor’s order mean for his real estate business, but that property management was pretty clear cut. Today he is giving keys to new tenants to move into an apartment Saturday. If he doesn’t show up, they don’t have a place to live.

“Having a roof over your head is a basic human need and, in my opinion, an essential service,” he said.

Pet necessities

Just like their human owners, Fido and Fluffy need to eat. And take their meds. Such is the unwritten rule giving pet store owners, veterinarians and even some groomers the confidence to carry on with their operations.

Carol Nordstrom, for 25 years the owner of Doggie Station pet grooming salon in Santee, on Friday was shaving down the paws of Lalu, a white miniature poodle.

Nordstrom and her daughter, Iris, typically groom about 10 dogs a day at the shop, which is open Tuesday through Saturday. She said she expected to groom about six more dogs on Friday and that she was planning on being open Saturday, unless another edict came down.

“I sanitize my shop every day,” Nordstrom said. “I also ask my customers, if they are feeling sick or running a fever, to stay home.”

San Diego-based Petco said that its California stores would remain open. Similarly, Kahoots and Dirty Dogs & Meow, two local chains that specialize in harder to find foods, are telling their customers not to worry. And they have the backing of a major lobbying group, which has been working overtime to communicate the necessity of pet services to lawmakers.

“One of the things that we’ve found across the country as we’ve been talking to elected officials ... it’s easy to think through the types of services and businesses to human health and well-being. It can sometimes be overlooked in the process, that for about two-thirds of Americans, there’s another consideration. And that’s their pets,” said Mike Bober, who runs the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.

The Virginia-based group, represented at the state level by a lobbyist based out of Sacramento, believes elected leaders know how important pet services are to their constituents, but is also looking for some legal backup.

“Realistically, throughout the state, the consensus is that pet stores are essential,” Bober said. “We would just certainly appreciate having that explicitly in writing.”

Stay-at-home economics

Chris Thornberg, founding partner of Beacon Economics, said Friday that it’s true that productivity for California businesses will be down, but that it doesn’t necessarily mean a long-run hit to profits. In his mind, there is a glass half full outlook for business leaders.

“These aren’t job losses, these are job furloughs,” Thornberg said. “There is an enormous difference.”

And the economic fallout from the coronavirus won’t be as catastrophic as, say, the Great Recession, which destroyed the entire housing industry.

“That was an enormous shift in the structure of the economy,” he said. “In three months, we’re going to have the exact same economy we had two weeks ago.”

So what about all the small businesses, especially restaurants, that have to close? Thornberg said they have already reduced labor and food costs significantly so that needs to be factored in. Although things could change as the crisis worsens, he’s hopeful that the fundamentals of the economy are strong enough to keep most afloat.

But Powell, the bookstore owner, said small businesses have more to fear than larger corporations.

“The big question is, how long can you afford to have your business go with no income?” she said. “Some businesses have more padding than others.”

Once a small business suffers a financial flatline — and empties its coffers to remain alive — then it becomes more susceptible to catastrophe in the future.

“When you’re on thin ice, all it takes is a little nudge in the wrong direction to make you go under,” Powell said. “We’re hoping we can weather the storm.”

U-T reporter Karen Pearlman contributed to this report.