Jade Fountaine, a bartender at Paradise Beach Grill in Capitola Village, holds up a drink.
Jade Fountaine, a bartender at Paradise Beach Grill in Capitola Village, holds up a drink.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Recovery & Reopening

We’re reopened ... technically: Why the post-June 15 life remains a mixed bag for business owners

Complicating matters for business owners already struggling to find workers is new masking guidance. On Thursday, Gov. Newsom signed an executive order that would expedite the wait time on those rules, giving businesses less time to figure out what to do.

Well, we’re reopened. Kind of.

It might not feel that way for some business owners who were already facing staffing shortages and now have to sort out masking protocol for those whom they can convince to work.

“We’re still struggling with staff,” Joanne Guzman of Bruno’s Bar & Grill said. “People accept the position and don’t show up.”

Guzman and her husband, Rogelio, took over the Scotts Valley business in 2017. The past few years have been kind to the Guzmans, but like many business owners, the potential 2021 successes are interconnected with the pains of 2020.

Guzman said before the pandemic Bruno’s had a staff of 42. Currently, they’re at 14 — a fraction of what they would like to be operating at. It forces the business to make some hard decisions, including limiting hours of operation.

“If we don’t have enough people to work, we’re closing,” she said.

On top of that, there’s the mask debacle. June 15’s opening allows vaccinated individuals to carry on maskless in a majority of areas and buildings. Businesses, however, have to provide N-95 masks for unvaccinated employees. It remains unclear if employers must maintain documentation for unvaccinated employees as staff may self-attest whether or not they’re vaccinated.

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that would expedite the wait time for the decision, which usually takes up to 10 days before taking effect.

“Our plan is to continue to have them [employees] wear masks,” Guzman said, adding that the past year has been frustrating, between the division on “all these issues” and figuring out as a business owner what they can and cannot do.

That frustration is something that June 15 helped pull away with haste for some.

“It’s been a lot of changes throughout the year — beginning today, it’s business as usual,” Scotts Valley Gym co-owner Mike Tyree said during a phone interview Tuesday.

Tyree was excited about the reopening and adamant about how much members helped keep the business alive throughout the pandemic and CZU Lighting Complex Fire evacuations.

Outside Scotts Valley Gym in Scotts Valley on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
Outside Scotts Valley Gym in Scotts Valley on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
(Neil Strebig / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“The only reason the gym stayed open is because 70% of members kept paying monthly dues and that kept us alive,” Tyree said.

It’s an interesting intersection. So many Santa Cruz businesses have expressed gratitude for the help they’ve received from locals and faithful customers in keeping their doors open during the darkest of times. Now that they’ve been given a figurative green light by the state, businesses should be effectively returning to normal. Yet operations largely remain stuck in neutral.

On Tuesday, several business owners, including Gayle Ortiz of Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola and Steve Volk of Ugly Mug in Soquel Village, acknowledged a nervousness among customers who were still donning masks. And yet, under the current ordinance, there’s little wiggle room for businesses to legally check vaccination cards, leaving an honor system in place that is ripe for verbal combustion between staff and guests.

Inside Gayle's Bakery & Rosticceria on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
Gayle’s Bakery & Rosticceria manager Carol Longbrake [left] and owner Gayle Ortiz [right] pose for a photo inside the bakery on Tuesday, June 15, 2021.
(Mark Conley / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And that’s on top of a lingering shortage of workers that continues to be a perplexing problem. Just where are the staff?

With $152 billion in unemployment collected since March 2020, the notion that more employees have chosen to keep collecting unemployment is an easy case to make. But it might be the wrong one.

According to the state’s Unemployment Development Department (UDD), Santa Cruz County’s unemployment rate has been fewer than 1,200 weekly claims since Feb. 20, including just 1,248 claims this month. The unemployment rate in Santa Cruz County last month was 6.6%, less than half of where it was this time last year at 14.3%.

Across the state, leisure and hospitality saw an increase of 62,300 jobs between April and May this year; 420,400 jobs in total have returned since May 2020, according to the UDD. In Santa Cruz County, the industry has 9,500 employees; approximately 500 more jobs have returned between April and May; and 2,000 more than May 2020.

And while those are a lot of figures to crunch, the numbers appear to be trending positive. It seems that the summer months could help determine if the industry is back on track or if mask confusion and an employee shortage will continue to be economic arthritis for local business owners.