Coronavirus: Bay Area ‘shelter in place’ order leaves businesses, workers scrambling

In Summary

Bay Area businesses are scrambling to understand how the lockdown will affect thousands of workers who aren't telecommuting or whose jobs can't be done remotely.

With Bay Area residents ordered to start sheltering at home Tuesday to help stop the spread of coronavirus, labor groups, businesses and workers are scrambling to understand how the lockdown will affect thousands of workers who aren’t telecommuting or whose jobs can’t be done remotely.

On Monday, less than 24 hours after Gov. Gavin Newsom on Sunday put out an urgent call for bars and nightclubs to shut, for restaurants to halve their number of tables and for millions of seniors and others with chronic conditions to self isolate, six Bay Area counties and their public health officers went much further, issuing an order carrying the force of law for residents to shelter at home for three weeks, until April 7.

For some businesses, that means closing during that time. But the order includes a long list of essential businesses that are exempt, including health care, pharmacies, public safety services and essential infrastructure, like plumbing, construction of housing, grocery stores, farmer’s markets, food stands, banks, gas stations and pet food suppliers.

Restaurants can stay open but only for take-out and delivery.

“This is new territory for a lot of businesses, big and small,” said Rufus Jeffris, spokesman for the Bay Area Council, a policy group. “Frankly we’re getting to get up to speed on all the business continuity. Some large businesses are probably better prepared in terms of preparing their workforces. Smaller businesses that haven’t had the resources or the time to prepare are going to struggle. There’s going to be a steep learning curve for everybody.”

The economic effects are unclear, but are expected to be considerable. Silicon Valley Leadership Group president Carl Guardino advised businesses across the region that planning is better than panicking, and warned that a much longer disruption than the three weeks specified in the order is possible.

Who can leave their home? Read the ‘shelter-in-place’ order for six Bay Area counties

“We should recognize that this could be three to five quarters and not weeks,” said Guardino, whose organization represents more than 350 companies and organizations operating in the Bay Area, from Apple in Cupertino and Tesla in Fremont to Blach Construction in San Jose and UC Berkeley. “This is going to be a difficult time.”

Still, Guardino said, many firms and other organizations in the Bay Area are in the business of developing technological solutions to major problems, “and they’re going to be needed more than ever.”

Labor groups — which already had been hearing from workers that the outbreak was presenting major financial difficulties — spent Monday afternoon pivoting to a new reality for businesses not deemed essential.

“It is definitely shining a light on the gaps in terms of worker protections that we need for working class families,” said Brenda Rodríguez, organizing director for the South Bay Labor Council, which represents about 100,000 workers including tradespeople, janitors, nurses and hotel workers.

The California Employment Development Department said people unable to work should apply for state unemployment insurance or disability insurance — or both if they’re unsure which is appropriate. The department said it already is seeing “a large increase in claims.”

Even before the shelter-at-home order, many workers across the Bay Area were feeling the financial fallout of coronavirus containment efforts. As of last week, about 8,000 workers in the entertainment and hospitality industries, including electricians, theater stagehands and musicians, had lost their jobs due to coronavirus-related closures, according to a tally from the San Francisco Labor Council, and many said they expected those numbers rise dramatically as state and local governments take more measures to deal with the rapidly expanding pandemic.

Sonia Bautista has been a room attendant at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco for the past six years and typically works 40 hours a week. Last week, the 43-year-old learned she was temporarily laid off as business declined. Bautista’s husband, who works at the Marriott Waterfront in Burlingame, had his days slashed from five to two, she said. The Bautistas are now wondering how they will make ends meet. Recently, their 14-year-old son asked how they will pay rent.

“This situation is very hard,” Bautista says. “We feel very bad. We don’t have any income to pay our rent or bills. My kid is stressed and very sad.”

The union representing Bautista and 14,000 other hotel, airport, stadium and food-service workers in San Francisco and San Mateo counties said many of its members work paycheck to paycheck.

“Businesses and the government must take seriously their responsibility to support working families who now face an unprecedented loss of income and whose access to health care is in jeopardy,” the union said in a statement. “Workers must not be left behind as we take this important step to protect the community.”

According to data released last week by the San Francisco Controller’s Office, hotels and services supporting the hospitality industry reported significant business losses, with occupancy rates for hotels hovering around 20 percent to 30 percent compared to the more typical 80 percent to 85 percent.

“I live paycheck to paycheck and I’m really worried about how I’m going to pay my bills and put food on the table for my kids,” said Larrilou Carumba, a 47-year-old single mother of three. She said she had lost all her housekeeping hours at a San Francisco hotel. “Everybody is afraid.”

In Santa Cruz County, officials followed suit later Monday with shelter at home rules.

Tania Mendez works two hospitality jobs in downtown Santa Cruz, and has been losing hours at both places as people stay home.

“Everything’s dead. I’m worried,” said Mendez, 28, before the county announced new rules. She is a bartender at 99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall and a server at El Palomar.

“Right now I have no cash — I spent my last $15 last night. I’m kind of stressing, because rent’s coming up. It is very difficult, but I’m sure it’s going to be like that for a lot of people. What are landlords going to do, are they going to be patient through all this or are there going to be evictions?”

Ethan Baron and Erica Hellerstein are journalists at the Mercury News. This article is part of  The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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