The holidays are stressful under normal circumstances. But during an ongoing global pandemic that has killed more than a quarter-million Americans and has again shut down small businesses locally, well, it’s easy to not feel so holly or jolly.
Still as this coronavirus crisis has worn on, hopefully we’ve learned a few things. Like that the saying “Avoid it like the plague” isn’t necessarily indicative of how humans behave during an actual plague. And that locally owned restaurants and retailers need our help more than ever.
Now with the new regional stay-at-home order for the San Joaquin Valley (which includes Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties, among others) going into effect Sunday, that need is even more urgent.
The region hit the grim mark of less than 15% capacity in hospital ICUs due to COVID-19 Friday night, meaning starting Sunday some non-essential small businesses will close, restaurants must go back to takeout and delivery only, indoor capacity at other businesses is reduced and residents are limited in their travel and outside activities for at least three weeks.
Still as you shop this year for Christmas gifts and holiday presents, you can make a big difference with some small yet significant gestures. Over the past nine months, I’ve talked with Stanislaus County small business owners from across the spectrum — restaurants, clothing boutiques, hair salons, nail studios, gift shops and more. And these are the ways they say you can help.
Ways to shop local in Stanislaus during a shutdown
First — and this is solid advice during a pandemic or a normal year — shop local. We all know it’s almost too easy to buy from Amazon and you’ll definitely find one or two of their cardboard delivery boxes in my recycle bin. But especially this year, we should all make a concerted effort to support the independent sellers and businesses in our area.
As you know, the great thing about shopping local is it keeps your sales tax dollars local, and it puts money in the pockets of store owners who are also residents who then spend that at other local shops, and so on and so forth. I’d rather my hard-earned dollar go to a local small business owner than Jeff Bezos any day, wouldn’t you?
Now, for people trying to limit exposure (which, to be honest, we all should), the convenience and safety of contactless delivery is paramount. But plenty of local shops are offering curbside pickup and other low-contact options. One only needs to check their websites or call to ask. Small retailers have been going out of their way to accommodate shoppers. Some even offer private shopping appointments. So discover what’s out there and you’ll likely find businesses bending over backwards to help.
Those include businesses like Liliana Downtown, a clothing boutique and fashion concierge service on J Street in Modesto. The shop opened a year ago, so has spent much of its first year of operation in the pandemic. Owner Liliana Sousa-Downs, who has spent some three decades as a fashion stylist and personal shopper, will see capacity at her store cut to 20% with the new order.
To make up for that, she offers online and in-store shopping. People worried about congested aisles can schedule private shopping appointments. She also offers curbside pickup and will specially deliver to people in Modesto. Now, come on, that’s service.
“We want to help make people feel comfortable,” she said. “We are here for any of your shopping needs if you need to feel safe.”
RAD Card doubles your money at downtown businesses
Sousa-Downs’s shop also takes the RAD Card (which stands for Relief Across Downtown) from the Downtown Modesto Partnership. The mobile app is a great way to shop local businesses in Stanislaus County, and can be gifted. What makes it special is it automatically doubles your money up to $100.
The app can be used at a slew of Stanislaus County businesses, and recently was expanded to every city in the county thanks to a boost of $1 million from CARES Act money, federal funding set aside for COVID-19 relief. Boutiques, jewelry stores, salons, bookstores and other small retailers are also part of the program. Visit www.theradcard.com to find out more and download the app from the Apple or Google stores.
If you have one or two or a dozen places you love and simply can’t live without, consider buying gift cards directly from them as well. Help nail salons and hair studios, which will now have to close under the stay-at-home order, while their doors are shut by buying certificates for future cuts and services. And, if they sell any branded T-shirts or swag, load up. A gift card plus, say, a hoodie from your favorite spot makes a wonderful present.
Buying ahead will infuse needed cash now to local businesses. Restaurants offer them as well as retail shops. So instead of giving people $5, $10, $20 gift cards from Starbucks or iTunes as stocking stuffers, consider a local establishment.
For restaurants, this new shutdown of all in-person service (both inside and outside dining) puts them back to where they were in March. While some were able to survive in the spring by beefing up their pickup and delivery services, other have had a harder time.
Avoid third-party delivery apps for valley restaurants
But if you think just grabbing your phone and opening Grubhub, Uber Eats or DoorDash to order delivery is going to save your favorite locally owned eatery, think again. Sure, it helps. But those third-party delivery apps take a healthy, some might say too healthy, bite out of a restaurant’s profit.
How healthy? By reports it’s anywhere from 15% to 30%, which is a substantial chunk for places that might see as much as a 50% decline in sales by in-person dining being shutdown again.
Look, I know they’re easy. I’ve used them, too, for convenient delivery from places my permanently sweatpants-swaddled body is just too lazy go. And, obviously, they’re a critically important lifeline for those at-risk who want to order food as contact free as possible. We can’t do away with them entirely.
But this month, for the holiday season, if we are physically able we should try our best to put on real pants and drive to pickup our food curbside or inside — while wearing a mask, of course. Also be sure to check with the restaurant first because many local eateries have created their own in-house delivery service. I’ve availed myself of direct delivery from Chefs of New York, Dynasty Garden and more. Cut out the middle delivery man and the restaurants themselves get to keep more of the profits.
You also know then whatever tip you give to the delivery person (who no doubt lives locally and spends locally) will go to them and not some faraway tech company that might hoard the money instead.
Don’t forget the booze when ordering from eateries
One other thing restaurant owners said you can do to help their bottom line is order booze. Since the coronavirus pandemic started, California ABC has taken the extraordinary step of allowing takeout cocktails and other drinks from restaurants. Now that another lockdown has started, lots of establishments are sitting on kegs full of alcohol to sell.
So, if your favorite spot does serve beer, wine or mixed drinks, take advantage. Go get your growlers filled, buy a round of cocktails for your house. Everything helps, and it helps restaurants handle the surpluses in inventory they’ll face without in-person dining.
“Last time we shut down we were stuck with all this beer. With no patio dining there’s no one to sell beer to. So I’d encourage people to buy growlers to help restaurants,” said Rich Lourdermilk, owner of the Buckhorn BBQ at Modesto’s Vintage Faire Mall. He has also started his own delivery service, in addition to using the online apps.
Yet perhaps the easiest, fastest and cheapest way to help local businesses is to like and share their posts on social media. During the pandemic, restaurants, boutiques and other shops have relied heavily on Facebook, Instagram and their social feeds to get the word out about their offerings.
If your favorite restaurant posts its daily specials, like and reshare that post. If your favorite boutique mentions a new sale for the holidays, like and share that post. Your friends list is likely their exact target audience, so even if you don’t shop or order from them that day, maybe one of your acquaintances will see your shared post and buy something.
But, hands down, the best thing you can do to help local businesses get through this shutdown is what you already should be doing. Stay home unless it is essential. Wear a mask whenever going out (and don’t give store employees grief about wearing them). Keep social distance from those outside your household. Wash your hands. These are our best and only tools, until a vaccine is widely available, to stem this seemingly endless pandemic. Businesses won’t be able to fully return to normal until we do.
I know everyone wants to gather for the holidays — it’s what the holidays are all about after all. But this year, stay home and celebrate in only your household or quarantine groups. That way everyone you love and your favorite small business will be around next holiday season. ‘Tis the season to spread joy, not the virus.