Pandemic stressing small shops, bars, restaurants on Main Street

Auburn’s business owners fret closures, hope to be here when they lift

Three, four times a week for years, Jerry Clayton and Karen Parman have been dropping by Auburn’s Rainbow Café for breakfast.

But when the Auburn seniors tried those familiar doors Monday morning, and found them locked, they turned back with a shrug.

In the coming week, others will have their own experiences before darkened restaurants, doughnut shops, bars, coffee shops, hair salons and more in Auburn and throughout the state, on the heels of Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation Monday morning to close such establishments to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

“If we are living a normal life, we are not doing our jobs as Washingtonians,” Inslee said. “We cannot do that anymore. We need to make changes, regardless of size. All of us need to do more. We must limit the number of people we come in contact with. This is the new normal.”

Clayton and Parman get it.

“I think our government is doing a great job,” Clayton said, “and we have to do what we have to do.”

“We’ve just got to get through it,” Parman said.

Inslee made the announcement in Seattle with King County Executive Dow Constantine and other local and health leaders via streaming and telephone to practice social distancing measures.

As of Tuesday, Rainbow Café owner Giovanni Di Quattro had already laid off all of his staff.

“I will rehire them as soon as I can reopen my doors,” Di Quattro said as he and a friend – the only people inside the restaurant – were filling takeout and deli and curbside orders, which the governor’s proclamation allows.

Di Quattro has expanded the Rainbow’s hours to 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.

For Di Quattro and other businesses on that list, the next few weeks will be tough.

“I hope to make it,” Di Quattro said. “It’s going to be day by day, finding out some of the stuff the Department of Revenue is requiring, some of the tax breaks they are talking about as far as payroll tax and that kind of stuff. Everything depends on if they can get anything passed.”

If, and it’s a great big if, he said, the cavalry isn’t too long coming over the hill.

“If our creditors all demand their money now, and it all goes into effect next month, then it becomes a moot point,” Di Quattro said. “We need relief today, not a month or two out. All the bills have to be paid, and one way or another people want their money, even government wants its money, so we need some kind of relief.”

It’s an overreaction

When the Auburn Reporter caught up with William “Billy Jack” Newman, brewer at West Main Street’s Rail Hop’n Brewing, and husband of owner Christy Newman, he and a customer, Jeral Flood, had just reached a one-word conclusion about the behavior of the people hoarding toilet paper and water at the supermarkets: overreaction.

What really gives Newman the shakes, he said, is what the government is not telling people.

“It’s a long closure, and right now I’m still on the fence about closing because I still have the opportunity to do growler fills because I have a window,” Newman said. “They can come up to the window, order their growler fill, and we can run back and forth. I can do that, but if I do that, growler fills bring in less money than selling a pint, and that could be a strain for the business a month or two down the road when it’s time to buy supplies. So I am on the fence: do I stay open four five hours a day for two weeks for people who want to do growler fills?”

In the bigger picture, Newman said, it’s all about supply and demand. When he sells beer, he says, he uses that money to buy more supplies and to make more beer.

“Say I put myself in a situation just selling growler fills at a lower price for those two weeks and yeah, I’m making and moving product,” he said. “But that doesn’t fit into my business plan for right away as far as covering my lease, my insurance, my taxes. It’s not going to be enough to cover all that and buy supplies to replenish the stock I just sold out.”

When Matt Noesen, and the husband-and-wife team of Mike and Kelley McDermott became the new owners of Zola’s Café on East Main Street in February, they could not have anticipated what would happen barely a month in.

“We felt this first about two weeks ago and business was about 30 percent down, and we’ve had some busier days, some slower days since then,” Noesen said. “But today, after the governor announced what was happening, we’re really down.

“It’s rough, it’s definitely rough. People are not gathering or anything, so our business is absolutely down, but we feel like being open for the people that will come in quickly and grab their food and go,” Noesen said. “The people that are coming in, they want to support local businesses, and that’s why we bought Zola’s – we want to be part of the community. People have come in and said, ‘Hey, we’ll support you over that big conglomerate that can handle this shutdown.’”

For now, because no one can eat inside the café. Zola’s will do what the other eateries are doing: stick to take-out food and beverages.

Wait and see

Farther east on Main Street, Bill Contoravdis, co-owner with brother Tom of Athens Pizza and Pasta, is weighing the situation.

“We’ve been here 40 years,” said Contoravdis, “and I’ve learned, don’t do do any knee-jerk reaction. Overall, it’s OK, but it breaks my heart for my employees. I’ve told them all that they can use their sick time and unemployment. Everybody’s worked here a long time, they’ll be OK, and I think in a couple of weeks it will all blow over. I’m only doing take-out. I just want to let a week or two go by and make a good decision.”

Like other business owners, Contoravdis is worried about conflicting reports.

“There’s so many things. I’m told right now I can’t have dining, only take-out,” he said. “With all this technology, there’s like four or five different reports, but I’ve called around. All my family is in the restaurant business, and nobody is seating anybody. So, I’m just gonna play it safe, and just do takeout.”

Watching developments is Doug Lein, the city of Auburn’s director of of economic development.

“Obviously, everyone is concerned. They’re engaged. They’re wanting the most up-to-date information that can keep them informed or help them,” Lein said. “And we at the city are doing our best to try to be that conduit of gathering information and pushing it out as far as what to do and not to do, I think everyone’s gotten that message.

“… It’s a day-by-day-thing with the governor’s office as far as how tight they’re making the noose to stop the spread between people,” Lein added.

The biggest piece of news out Monday, Lein said, is that 13 of 39 counties in Washington state have been approved for economic development disaster assistance funding loans up to $8 million.

“It’s an online process to apply, and our big thing now is to push that link and get it out there that that’s available,” Lein said.

The one sentiment common to business owners and customers, is that this time will pass, and they figure they’ll just have to wait it out.

“It’s very inconvenient and boring for me as I spend most of my time at the senior center, and it’s closed,” Clayton said.

“I don’t mind staying home,” Parman said, “but it will get old pretty quickly.”

Matt Noeson is prepared to weather the storm of the coronavirus pandemic as one of the new owners of Zola’s Café on East Main Street. ‘It’s rough, it’s definitely rough,’ he said. ROBERT WHALE, Auburn Reporter

Matt Noeson is prepared to weather the storm of the coronavirus pandemic as one of the new owners of Zola’s Café on East Main Street. ‘It’s rough, it’s definitely rough,’ he said. ROBERT WHALE, Auburn Reporter