Over the next two weeks, Sonoma West Times & News will be rehashing 2020 in west county. We’ll be reviewing the biggest events in the economy, as well as covering topics such as COVID-19, health care, schools, homelessness and more.
For a fleeting moment in time, 2020 looked hopeful for some local businesses at the start of the year. Rialto Cinemas in Sebastopol rang in its 20th anniversary in January while other businesses swung open its doors, like Peet’s Coffee & Tea downtown, Acre Pizza in the Barlow and a Criminal Baking storefront near Fircrest Market.
Not two full months later, the coronavirus revealed its presence in Sonoma County in March and wrecked the traditional workplace, transforming some industries and sinking others in a global economic crisis felt near and dearly.
That March, the Small Business Administration began offering Economic Injury Disaster Loans to businesses and months later, the Payroll Protection Program. As some financial experts forecast an economic fallout worse than the 2008 Great Recession, Karin Moss took in the news that the lower Russian River businesses were slowing down, as executive director of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce.
Meanwhile, Sebastopol Farmers Market manager Carla Rosin saw some changes around the place in April, like hand-washing station installations and prohibiting customers from touching produce. Instead, customers would point to what they wanted as one vendor bagged the produce and another took the money.
“I would say our customer numbers have dropped down to maybe a third of what we usually see this time of year,” Rosin said, according to reporting by Sonoma West Times & News in April. In May, the Sebastopol Farmers Market began offering an online ordering system for curbside pick-up.
The pandemic forced retailers to operate at reduced capacity and restaurants to adapt to serving takeout, online and curbside. The newly unemployed from various fields stumbled out into their lives and figured out how to get food on the table as those tables converted to school desks, students sent home to continue their education online for the rest of the year.
Some comforts can’t be bought, at least for now — since the pandemic shutdowns pulled the plug on Rialto Cinemas in March, a GoFundMe listing owner Ky Boyd as an organizer has raised over $131,000 as of Dec. 21 to cover rent, insurance and utilities.
The wine and hospitality industries struggled tremendously with the fall of tourism, issuing layoffs. According to Sonoma West Times & News in April, an estimated 12% of the 24,750 workers who applied for unemployment at the time were squeezed out of the hospitality and restaurant industry.
Joe Bartolomei, co-owner of Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, said he had to reduce his staff of around 80 employees by half over the course of the pandemic.
Among the businesses that did make the leap online were Sebastopol’s Yoga Studio Ganesha, Westside Yoga Studio and CrossFit Sebastopol. Erick Thuss, owner of Westside Yoga, said “We lowered our prices for online classes across the board,” providing two weekly donation-based classes for $5 a class at the lowest, as covered by Sonoma West Times & News in April.
Groceries and gardening and hardware stores were doing well by May, between dashes for toilet paper and sanitizer and home-improvement projects, sheltered in place. Sonoma West Times & News reported in May that Sebastopol Hardware owner Doug Bishop said he’d start hitting up a different local restaurant each day to buy lunch for his employees, offering a 10% discount to any customer who waves a receipt from a local eatery to support the struggling industry.
The Sebastopol City Council decided in June to expand outdoor dining in public spaces like private parking lots and sidewalks for restaurants that obtain a temporary permit.
But it wasn’t until October that the council decided to advance an application to the California Department of Transportation to consider permitting temporary parklets on the state’s right-of-way, main roads Highways 116 and Highway 12 through town. Four parklets are now in various stages of development.
Sonoma West Times & News reported in July that CoMission, the company the Sebastopol City Council contracted in May to empower economic development and community vitality, released a study finding over half of the city’s 160 businesses surveyed said they dropped 50% in revenues.
The study reported a third said they laid off or furloughed their entire staff while 70% either let go of at least some employees, if not all. By September, the city council approved a loan program of $150,000 in funds for Sebastopol businesses to apply for, selected by lottery.
In October, the Sebastopol City Council approved its 2020-21 budget and decided to tap its reserves, projecting a 20% loss of revenue, or around $2.2 million, according to reporting by Laura Hagar Rush of Townsy Media. Sebastopol Budget Director Ana Kwong found dramatic decreases in three of the city’s four primary streams of revenue in 2020, which were sales taxes, hotel taxes and user charges, while property taxes did not change much.
Merchants of Main Street in Guerneville helped pull off socially distanced Halloween passing out candy in October. Come November, Russian River area businesses sustained a victory in November when sandwich boards appeared and banners and window clings unfurled to promote commerce and “visually unite the region,” in the words of Karin Moss, with original designs by world-famous artist and part-time Guerneville resident Jim Isermann.
Moss and Marina McTaggart, president of the Monte Rio Chamber of Commerce, secured a grant for the Creative ReOpening project from Creative Sonoma and the National Endowment for the Arts to fund Isermann’s installations, with messages like “Social distance,” “Be safe,” and “Be smart,” at no cost to businesses.
Essential workers and other parents were able to enroll their children in the Sebastopol Center for the Arts’ supervised distance learning program in November. The program sought to provide a sanitized, distanced environment for elementary schoolers to do their school work and receive adult support while their parents work from home or sometimes wrestle two jobs.
According to Dana Swint, the center’s education manager, all families paid either the low end of the sliding scale or received full scholarship for the service.
Along the coast, commercial Dungeness crab season at Bodega Bay was delayed until after Thanksgiving, to protect whales passing through from getting caught in the ropes. The commercial season is slated to open this week.
Despite the doom and gloom of COVID-19, the Legacy’s Annual Holiday Bazaar in Sebastopol ran for a few days in early December where people could buy wrapping paper, ornaments, stockings, fake trees and other holiday items with funding headed to the Sebastopol Senior Center.
Guerneville businesses, like Pat’s International, the Guerneville 5&10 and Big Bottom Market, came together to put on their first annual Downtown Collective Tree decorating contest in Boon + Eat’s backyard garden area for visitors to vote for a winner, according to Sonoma West Times & News coverage in December. ‘