Fil-Am retail businesses in California weigh reopening under ‘new normal’

As California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan this week to begin loosening some restrictions, Filipino American business owners whose retail stores have been closed for the past two months are mulling whether to reopen under new modifications.

Newsom on Monday, May 4 unveiled stage two of reopening lower-risk workplaces — which were previously deemed non-essential — with certain measures, including masks for employees, and curbside pickup and physical distancing for customers, as early as Friday.

“We’re not going back to normal,” said Newsom in his daily remarks on Tuesday, talking about the next phase. ”It’s a new normal with adaptations and modifications, until we get to immunity and a vaccine.”

Among the businesses he referenced that can start to open their doors are florists and stores that sell books, clothing and sporting goods.

Pamela Augustus, co-owner of Cerritos Florist in Cerritos, California, closed the store in early March following Los Angeles County’s “safer at home” order and because floral suppliers had to suspend operations also.

Ahead of the governor’s announcement on Monday, the store decided it would reopen to fulfill orders for Mother’s Day, one of its busiest days of the year.

Augustus and co-owner Vivian Delpilar have set plans to take phone orders, prohibit customers from physically browsing inside the store, and have curbside pickup or delivery options.

However, the challenges they anticipate are older customers who may not be keen on placing phone or online orders and prefer coming to the location, as well as the sparse supply of flowers this year.

“Our older customers are used to walking into the shop, being able to look at the flowers and placing an order,” Augustus told the Asian Journal. “There are two things going on right now. Number one, we can’t have anyone in the shop and two, our flower selection is a little different and limited because it’s based on what we can get our hands on.”

After this weekend, the flower shop will decide how it will operate moving forward as customers are now getting used to current physical distancing measures and contactless delivery.

“Even if businesses are reopening, everyone is still wondering how to navigate this new normal,” Augustus said.

MaeMae Jewelry storefront in Atwater Village, Los Angeles | Photo courtesy of MaeMae Jewelry

In Los Angeles’ Atwater Village neighborhood, Rheena Mae Bartolome has rented a brick and mortar space for her line, MaeMae Jewelry, for the past four years. She closed its doors on March 14 and furloughed all seven employees, who worked on-site to craft the jewelry by hand.

The pandemic also affected her inventory in some 300 retailers, which include spas, yoga studios and boutiques, nationwide that carry her pieces.

“The magic of MaeMae was coming in, talking, and hugging…If I have to talk to [customers] 10 feet away, the experience is not the same,” Bartolome told the Asian Journal, adding that it wouldn’t be feasible to cap the store at two customers and then have to sanitize products each time.

While her landlord has been accommodating with later rent payments and as she waits to hear back about her Paycheck Protection Program application, Bartolome has “no immediate plans” to reopen her doors and is leaning toward going completely online, which she said is more “flexible.”

In the past month and a half, the line has experienced a significant increase in online sales but the downsides are that she has to make the jewelry by herself with no additional help and the profits wouldn’t be enough to cover rent for the coming months.

Arkipelago Books is located inside the Bayanihan Center, in the city’s Filipino Cultural Heritage District, SOMA Pilipinas. | PapaLoDown Agency file photo

“I don’t know what the future holds but I can be excited, though…As an entrepreneur, I think this is when grit and resilience come in and make your brain creative in different ways. It’s definitely happening for us,” Bartolome said.

Arkipelago Books, a bookstore in San Francisco’s SOMA Pilipinas, has seen about a 70% increase in online sales, especially in cookbooks and titles geared toward children and Filipino history, since closing its physical space in early March.

“Currently, we are shipping out from the shop and will continue to do so for at least a couple weeks more to safeguard the health of our families,” co-owner Golda Sargento told the Asian Journal.

This phase, which is the second of four, of California’s reopening will not include malls, offices or sit-down service in restaurants. A more detailed guide will be released by the governor later this week.

Christina M. Oriel

Christina M. Oriel is an award-winning editor and communications strategist based in Los Angeles with experience in content, strategy and branding for media ecosystems, inclusive fintech startups, small businesses and direct-to-consumer products.

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