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'Step forward': Lompoc small business owners embracing return to work
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'Step forward': Lompoc small business owners embracing return to work

As the owner of The Party Shop in Lompoc, John Keth spent part of Tuesday going over inventory and cleaning up the store between occasional interactions with customers.

Although those tasks weren't particularly thrilling and business wasn't exactly booming — evidenced by lengthy periods without visitors — Keth acknowledged he was excited to be back at the store he has run with his wife, Kim, for the past 15 years.

“I don’t know if I see the light at the end of the tunnel," he said, "but at least it’s a step forward and we’re seeing some type of positive generation of funds.”

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He wasn’t the only Lompoc business owner to feel that way.

When state and Santa Barbara County public health officials issued stay-at-home orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, the move effectively shuttered many businesses considered to be nonessential. Thanks to some of those restrictions being relaxed Friday, many retailers have spent the past several days reopening their shops and preparing for what could be a critical return to business.

“We’re hoping to make enough to cover rent,” said Keth, whose only employee is his adult daughter. “The rent is still due on the 1st every month. It’s been slow, but it’s been a positive attitude from everyone that’s come in here.”

Under the new guidelines approved by state public health officials, several types of businesses were approved to reopen for curbside pickup with appropriate safety measures in place. Those businesses include antique stores, bookstores, clothing stores, florists, home and furnishing stores, jewelry stores, music stores, shoe stores, sporting goods stores and toy stores.

Surf Connection — which had been closed since March 16, four days before Gov. Gavin Newsom’s shutdown orders — was also among the Lompoc stores serving customers on the curb Tuesday.

Robin Dunaetz, who has owned the apparel store since 1991, noted the curbside pickup service created a “different shopping experience” for customers, but said she was mostly glad to have the shop back up and running.

“We are embracing this opportunity 100%,” Dunaetz said. “It very much is a positive step forward. We’ve been following all the guidelines we’ve been given for keeping our employees and our customers safe, but operating as best we can under the circumstances.”

Dunaetz noted that she laid off her entire staff in March amid the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus crisis. She said that those staffers are being “gradually” brought back, ”one by one for a few hours each week as we navigate this new way of doing business.”

Those new methods at Surf Connection have included an increased emphasis on social media and creating online showrooms to interact with potential customers.

“How we operate our business has very much been turned on its head, so to speak,” Dunaetz said. “We had operated pretty much the same way with tweaks here and there over the past 29 years, but at this point we’ve had to not necessarily reinvent the wheel but really come up with some different solutions to be able to work with our customers in a safe fashion and interface with them.

“At some point in the future,” she added, “we may look back and say, ‘It was a good thing we had to think outside the box back then.’ Only time will tell.”

Francisca Pantoja, the owner of the Lompoc Fashion clothing store, reopened her business Tuesday. She closed down on March 14, six days ahead of Gov. Newsom’s order, and said she had spent much of the past week vacuuming, dusting and disinfecting surfaces, including the store’s clothes hangers.

“It’s been hard,” Pantoja said of the extended closure.

Pantoja was able to avoid some of the staffing issues faced by other businesses, as she is her store’s lone employee.

While Pantoja noted that she was glad to be back in business, she said she was still concerned for her health and the health and safety of those around her.

“I need to make money to pay my bills, but I’m scared,” she said.

She said those health worries trumped her financial concerns.

“When it comes to finances, God will provide,” she said. “He always provides. But I have my grandkids and they live with me, so I don’t want to get [infected].”

Still, finances are not far from many business owners’ minds.

Both Dunaetz and Keth said they reached out for financial help via small business loans, but neither of them was able to secure assistance due to various circumstances.

Lompoc Mayor Jenelle Osborne said this first phase of reopening the local economy was “an important step in the right direction.”

“I know our community will respect and practice the appropriate physical distancing and other requirements while shopping local," she said. "And I am confident we can continue to identify ways to protect each other and reopen additional businesses in partnership with the county public health department.”

Osborne said the continuation toward a full reopening of the economy will be a "learning curve with many adjustments to our personal behaviors," like social distancing and wearing face coverings.

"Lompoc survived the 1918 pandemic, numerous economic booms and busts, and world wars," she said. "Lompoc has always shown how strong, compassionate and independent it is through all these times. I believe we can once again be pioneers who overcome the challenges before us by working together with support and respect for all. Be safe, be calm and be kind."

That sentiment was echoed by Keth, who issued his own message to the community.

“Just remember the small businesses that are in town,” he said. “People are getting used to ordering on Amazon now, and that’s not helping the local community. That’s helping somebody somewhere, but not locally. We want to make sure that people stay with small businesses and shop local ... so we can keep our tax dollars in town and help keep these types of businesses open.”

Coronavirus Series: Local impact and reaction to COVID-19 on the Central Coast

We are working hard to get answers about the impact and reaction to the coronavirus in Santa Barbara County, this is a collection of those stories. Do you have a question about coronavirus in Santa Barbara County? The Santa Maria Times news staff will work to answer your questions. Post them to our Facebook page, or email MCooley@SantaMariaTimes.com.  You can support the work of local journalists working hard in your hometown by signing up for a News+ Membership online

Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.

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