For many local businesses around UC Riverside, the coronavirus pandemic has posed significant and unforeseen challenges.
The Getaway Cafe, located in Bannockburn Village, has been a popular destination for UCR students, faculty and staff for almost 22 years. Since its opening in July of 1998, the Getaway Cafe has concentrated on providing UCR with a communal space for students to study, TA’s to hold office hours and even for professors to teach occasional classes, said Shawn Sabbagh, the owner.
When UCR announced that winter quarter finals would be taken online and all spring quarter instruction would be conducted remotely due to the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus across the United States, Sabbagh knew adjusting to this new normal would not be easy. In an interview with The Highlander, Sabbagh explained that finals week is usually one of the busiest and most affluent weeks for the restaurant stating, “Classes being canceled was like the nail in the coffin for us because that is what we live off of.”
The Getaway Cafe is now struggling to survive, as is the case for many small businesses across the U.S. who have been forced to close or restrict their services due to the coronavirus. Sabbagh fears that his situation will only get worse as the summer progresses and is waiting for a decision to be made on whether or not fall quarter will remain online.
“Everything that we did throughout (spring) quarter was to build ourselves up financially to support the summer,” said Sabbagh, as there are significantly less students on campus. Now that summer classes are being held remotely as well, Sabbagh told The Highlander that if something does not change soon, it might be the end of his long standing business.
For the 22 years since The Getaway Cafe opened, it has been exclusively aimed toward the UCR community, with very minimal exposure outside of campus. That has always been enough to sustain the business, until now, stated Sabbagh. Last month, the restaurant’s total income was $2,154, far less than what Sabbagh needed to pay for the $1,900 gas bill, as well as food and insurance. He has considered promoting the business elsewhere but according to Sabbagh, “It would be like trying to start up a new business in a bad business environment, it’s not going to be successful.” He added that he has not received any help or guidance from UCR stating, “Instead of being an entity that helps locals and people in the community it has turned into a corporation unfortunately … they only care about what benefits them regardless of what happens to anybody else.”
More than 33 million workers have filed for unemployment benefits in the U.S. over the past seven weeks, according to the United States Department of Labor. This marks the highest numbers ever recorded since the agency began tracking data in 1967.
Like many small businesses, Sabbagh did not qualify for unemployment benefits and has struggled to receive any funding from the government, including Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans designed to assist small businesses in keeping workers on their payroll. He says he has applied for multiple types of assistance but has had no luck in landing any of them.
Linda Sherman-Nurick, owner of Cellar Door Books, had more luck in acquiring a PPP loan. “It is not enough to save the business,” she stated in an interview with The Highlander, “but we keep working.”
Sherman-Nurick opened Cellar Door Books in 2012 because she felt there was a lack of independent bookstores that uplifted and supported writers who had little representation in larger bookstores. In seven years, she has created a safe and inclusive environment for community members and students from colleges around the area such as UCR, Riverside Community College and California State University, San Bernardino to gather and discover new stories.
Now that her storefront is closed, she and her son have been able to process and ship out online orders but it has caused a significant decrease in their income.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced his four-stage plan to re-open the state, with stage two happening as early as Friday, May 7. This allows for bookstores, music stores, toy stores, florists, sporting goods retailers and clothing stores to re-open for curbside pickup only. Sherman-Nurick expressed her excitement for this decision stating that it has allowed her to welcome her staff back in the store; “it has helped a lot,” she said.
Like Sabbagh and Sherman-Nurick, many small business owners across the country are relying on hope to make it through this pandemic. For Sherman-Nurick, her hope lies in being able to continue to provide an indie bookstore where her customers can see their voices and struggles reflected in literature. “It’s a vital part of what we need … reading and understanding and questioning the world is more important than it ever was,” stated Sherman-Nurick.
For Sabbagh, his hope lies in keeping his business alive. “Survival, that’s what keeps me motivated,” he stated. He said hanging on to The Getaway Cafe is like “holding a sick baby in (his) arms,” and even in the worst of times he will do the most that he can to help it.