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Alicia Paredes carries a takeout order past the closed dining room at the Maya Mexican restaurant on Wednesday. Store owners said curbside pickup is allowing them to hang on through COVID-19 closures.

As Santa Maria businesses near the end of their seventh week navigating revenue loss and restricted service under the state's stay-at-home order, many are beginning to look ahead to the "new normal" once they can reopen. 

Teresa Paredes, owner of Maya Mexican Restaurant in Santa Maria, said she was able to keep some staff with the help of the Paycheck Protection Program, and is assessing the future.

"We have noticed an impact in sales, but we have seen them rise lately. This is when we realized, 'this is our new normal,'" Paredes said.

Santa Maria to draft plan for reopening city amid confusion from state, county

While Maya Mexican Restaurant has adapted easily to offering takeout and delivery only, the process of adjusting for future customer safety and comfort once businesses reopen will be challenging, Paredes said.

"When they do start to lift … some of these restrictions on our businesses, we don't want to reopen fully. We don't want to risk our employees or some of our customers. We would still do carry out and delivery and maybe keep our patio open," she said.

Other local businesses have similar concerns, and as the city collaborates with other regions through the reopening process, the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce is working to create strategies for businesses as they navigate phases of reopening.

The Chamber's plan, titled "Building Resilience in Santa Maria Valley - COVID-19 Response Strategies," includes voices from throughout the Santa Maria Valley business community, according to Chamber CEO Glenn Morris. 

"As businesses look at [reopening] frameworks the county is giving, they’re saying 'please be careful.' I think there’s sentiment too around 'don't do more harm than good,'" Morris said. 

The Chamber's plan calls for an advisory board made up of volunteers from the business community, who will assist businesses in modifying their marketing, services and products in order to meet new realities such as continued social distancing among customers and a need for increased online services.

"A lot of businesses are going to come back, and it's not gonna be everything they hoped it would be. It's making sure businesses understand what they can and can't do, and helping them communicate to the world 'we’re open, here’s what we’re doing,'" Morris said. 

Before the Chamber can assist businesses with navigating future reopenings, however, the City of Santa Maria must work with regional partners to create a broader reopening plan.

City reopening plan

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Santa Maria city officials say a successful reopening process as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted will involve a regional partnership between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties because of Santa Maria's economic connections and the frequent crossover of residents across county lines.

Santa Maria will be rolling out its own reopening plan called the Mayor's Phased Reopening Plan, which is part of San Luis Obispo County's START Guide as well as Santa Barbara County's reopening plan that is in the works, according to City Manager Jason Stilwell.

"The counties are set up to deal with land-based disasters and county disaster planning. With this being a health disaster, it didn’t follow the jurisdiction boundaries as much. We recognized that we would have to provide input to the counties," Stilwell said. "It's better to do it regionally rather than as a one-off."

The Mayor's Phased Reopening Plan includes Mayor Alice Patino, city council members, staff from the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, law enforcement and Dignity Health officials, and various community business leaders, Stilwell said. 

The fact that cities in both counties are developing their reopening plans with regional economic development consultant REACH, formerly The Hourglass Project, will help create a more unified reopening response, Stilwell said.

"It was a good match. We've been working with REACH since they started, recognizing that this is a regional challenge. Our challenge is north to the river as much as it is south to the tunnel," Stilwell said. 

This week has been the "heavy lifting week," according to Stilwell, as Santa Maria city staff and other county stakeholders provide feedback on guidelines for different business sectors developed by the county.

In the coming weeks, the feedback will be incorporated and presented in a draft to the public on readysbc.org, according to county officials.

The city will eventually have its own guidelines for local implementation of the county reopening order, but must wait until the county's plan is closer to being finished.

"Since we're regulated by that health order in this county, we recognize that we are going to be under some level of health order [in Santa Maria]," Stilwell said. 

Our Neighbors Series: How the Central Coast is adapting to living through a pandemic

We have been publishing a series of stories in print and online titled “Our neighbors: Living through a pandemic.” By publishing these short vignettes, we aim to share the struggle and the hope of residents on the Central Coast. Through their stories it becomes clear that we really are facing the coronavirus together. 

Go through our full collection of stories right here, and if you have a story that you think we should know about send an email to JAnderson@santamariatimes.com

Laura Place covers city government for the Santa Maria Times.


Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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