‘Just trying to survive’: Claremont businesses face pandemic uncertainty

Front of business named Some Crust with various flyers taped on the glass wall
Local businesses have not been immune to the devastating economic impacts of COVID-19 but Claremont businesses are adapting to new conditions. Signs at Some Crust Bakery require social distancing and encourage takeout. (Regan Rudman • The Student Life)

Since March, local businesses have suffered from COVID-19 regulations and a lack of students, forcing many to adjust their normal operations and others to close permanently.

“I mean, we’re really tied together,” said Randy Lopez, executive director of the Claremont Chamber of Commerce and CEO of Ophelia’s Jump Productions, a local theatre company. “The students visit the businesses, the parents come for graduation and stay in the hotels and go to the restaurants and take the kids out, and there’s this whole cycle that we all kind of do together.”

But with few students around, that cycle has ground to a halt. 

Some local businesses, like popular student hangout Augie’s Coffee, have already been forced to shut their doors for good as early as July. After Augie’s came the Claremont Club, a country club that employed more than 250 people and included 27 tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool and a social lounge for members and guests, according to its website. It closed Aug. 1.

Then, early in September, Moultrie Academy of Music, Voice and Dance gave up its studio and transitioned to teaching students online.

The City of Claremont initially tried to help alleviate some of the financial burdens imposed on small businesses by COVID-19 restrictions back in May with its Emergency Small Business Grant Program. The city closed its intake form after receiving 100 submissions in less than two hours after it opened. While 54 of these businesses were then given applications for the grant, only 13 submitted an application and received funding, according to a Sept. 22 city council meeting.

However, the program did not accept applications from businesses that had received loans or assistance from other federal, state and local programs, according to the council meeting, reducing the number of businesses eligible for the program. 

“I think even with [Paycheck Protection Program] and all the other loans, they’re helping, they’ve definitely helped, but again what we thought would have been maybe four months is turning into six months that could possibly go to 12 months,” Lopez said.

The businesses that survived have adapted to the changing landscape. Many restaurants now offer outdoor dining, and retail stores have reopened at reduced capacities. On Sept. 2, the Los Angeles Department of Public Health allowed barbershops and hair salons to reopen at 25 percent capacity. 

But they’re still facing difficulties.

Rhino Records coped with the loss in income by taking out a loan and reducing its Claremont location’s store hours. Pre-pandemic, the record store was open 12 hours daily, seven days per week, according to Aaron Kenyon, Rhino’s product manager. Now, it’s closed Mondays and Tuesdays and operates only eight or nine hours a day.

“We took a big hit being down for three months,” Kenyon said.

Health concerns have also kept some of the company’s remaining employees from returning to work, Kenyon added.

“Businesses right now are just trying to survive, to get information,” Lopez said. “It’s affecting businesses the same way it’s affecting all of us.”

Claremont City Councilman Ed Reece also acknowledged the devastating impacts of the pandemic on local businesses.

“It’s quite unfortunate that this pandemic is something that none of us saw coming and, quite frankly, is all new territory for Claremont and its business community,” Reece said.

The Sept. 22 city council meeting included discussions of how the remaining $52,193 from the business grant program can be leveraged to support the local area.

The council approved a plan to first prioritize those on a waitlist for the city’s COVID-19 rental assistance program and then continue offering funding to those businesses that had received applications back in May. The council also loosened the requirement that businesses not accept other government-funded support to be eligible for the Claremont program. 

Meanwhile, Reece remains optimistic that the city will get through this time of economic uncertainty.

“These businesses are strong. They’re banding together. We’re working with them, and the Chamber of Commerce is working with them to help. And we will get through this as a community,” he said.

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