First, let me be clear. I am not one of those who believe the coronavirus is a hoax or that its ravages and potential ravages have in any way been exaggerated. Having contracted and survived the virus myself, I know full well how dangerous it is and how seriously it must be taken. That said, as a small business owner who operates, given the exorbitant rents and operating costs in Santa Barbara, with a very small margin, as so many small businesses do, I must take extreme exception to the decision to once again close businesses as a means of controlling the spread of the virus.
In my particular case, I own and run a small, longstanding boxing and kickboxing gym. We’ve been an integral part of the Santa Barbara small business community for over 20 years. We cater to a comparatively small but extremely dedicated and loyal customer base. In that time, the gym has been able to provide our members with a service they love, and myself with a decent if not in any way affluent living. As I mentioned before, and as it is with so many businesses in Santa Barbara, we operate on a razor-thin margin, a margin that has gotten thinner and thinner as rents have continued to climb. Still, we have survived and, in a small way, thanks to that loyal membership base, thrived.
Now comes the coronavirus and the first three months of shutdowns. That razor-thin margin has cut through my business’s resources and left me more than $10,000 in debt with thousands more dollars of debt on the very near horizon. While my landlord was generous enough to forgive one month’s rent entirely and defer the payment of thousands of dollars more, deferment is nothing more than a loosening of a noose that must eventually tighten and break the neck of my business. Such debt is irremediable in these times.
The repayment of it is predicated on the understanding that my business having reopened will operate at substantially over 100 percent. How else in a year’s time to pay my regular rent and bills plus an amount large enough to repay what I owe? The predication is a fiction.
While a core portion of my members continued to pay during the first shutdown, I still lost well over half my membership, and it will be some time, if ever, before people are comfortable enough to return to their pre-virus habits.
This brings us to the new round of shutdowns. It is simply untenable, particularly given the previous three months of shutdowns and the debt the shutdown incurred, to once again ask, demand, that people give up their livelihoods, some, like my own, that people have spent a third or more of their lives sweating and worrying and nurturing into a living.
Bad as the virus is, this cannot be the means by which it’s controlled.
It is beyond unacceptable that cities cannot demand and enforce the wearing of masks and the maintaining of a proper social distance, two practices that cost no more than the price of a mask and a mild inconvenience, yet can so readily demand that business owners destroy their livelihoods and leave themselves in equally life-destroying debt and potentially endless legal entanglements. Then, if one’s business is fortunate enough, however badly damaged, to somehow survive the shutdown, what happens when the shutdown is lifted? The virus will resurge and we’ll be right back where we were.
This is what’s happened the first time. Barring a treatment or vaccine, two things in no way that can be relied upon, it will happen again unless people are compelled to change their social behavior. And this, changing people’s behavior, is where the focus and enforcement efforts should be.
Closing down all business is too broad, too thoughtless a stroke. Small businesses like mine have every capability of operating well within the CDC safety guidelines. We can limit occupancy. We can require masks. We work in a well-ventilated and regularly sanitized space. The burden of controlling the pandemic cannot fall on the shoulders of small businesses and tenants generally.
If you are going to forbid us to work, then you must forbid landlords to charge rent, utility companies to charge for gas, electricity, or water, car dealerships to collect car payments. If closing businesses is the answer, then there must be a one-to-one ratio: forbidden to earn, freed from payment. I am not talking about deferring payment, which, as I said, only postpones the inevitable. You cannot, in all fairness tell me I cannot earn yet I still must pay. It is patently unconscionable to ask someone to do the impossible. Governor Newsom can speak as glibly as he likes about dimmer switches, but, disingenuously innocuous metaphors notwithstanding, it’s lives he’s talking about, not switches.
As I said in the beginning, I’ve had the virus, I know it’s real, and I am fully in the camp of doing what’s necessary to curb it. However, I do not believe, except in the eventually fruitless short-term, that shutting down small businesses, many of which, like mine, are demonstrably capable of operating safely, is the answer. If I’m wrong, and shutting down businesses is the answer, then there must be a concomitant forgiving of rent and other expenses. To say that requiring all these other people and companies to forego payment for their goods and services is unrealistic is no answer. Shutting down our businesses and expecting us to still pay is equally unrealistic, perhaps more so.
We’re not shirking our civic duty. We want to do our part, but we want to do it by requiring masks, maintaining social distance, keeping our work environment clean, and generally operating responsibly and within the guidelines provided by the nation’s health-care organizations and professionals.
We will do our part, but our part is not to sacrifice our livelihoods so that we are left with nothing but a business ruined and crippling debt when this is finally over.
Josh Schneyer is the owner and head coach of State Street Boxing Club.