Crushed by Covid

As much as we wanted to leave the struggles of 2020 in the dust as we rang in the new year, the coronavirus crisis is still weighing heavy on all of us.
    Despite the hope of the vaccine on the horizon, it’s clear this pandemic will be with us well into 2021.
    Hospitals are overrun, COVID-19 cases are surging and nearly every one of us knows someone who has lost a loved one to this deadly virus.
    Beyond the health concerns the pandemic has brought, we’ve all seen the devastating impact COVID regulations and shutdowns have had on small businesses.
     The economic impact of COVID-19 has hit nearly every sector, from restaurants and mom and pop stores to education and childcare.
    Eddy Polon, bakery owner and member of Temple Sinai of Glendale, said it’s taken everything he has just to stay afloat.
    “As a small business, I don’t have a big buffer, so as soon as the lockdown happened I immediately cut everyone’s hours,” he said. “We immediately just started looking at where our money was going.”
    Polon’s Continental Kosher Bakery, located in Valley Village, has seen effects of the pandemic that have become common at small stores and restaurants. He’s had to cut back hours and days of operation and reduce employee hours and pay.
    “We haven’t laid anybody off, I feel proud about that,” he said, “but most of our employees are now working less than 40 hours a week.”
    As a Jewish bakery, he said, most of his business usually comes between September and March. He said 25 percent of his income comes from temple events, summer camps, bar mitzvahs, weddings and other religious gatherings. In other words, nothing that’s pandemic-friendly.
    “That piece of our business sort of disappeared,” Polon said.
    Polon realized that things were taking a turn when Purim carnival orders suddenly dropped off last year, just as the state was shutting down for the first time.
    “That was kind of our first realization of what was happening,” he said. “We had our first hit.”
    Polon was able to pivot his business to focus on online orders, delivery services and pickups, and stayed alive thanks to a federal loan and local grant.
    But he said as the health impacts of the pandemic grew more serious, he faced a new set of problems.
    He scrambled to find protective equipment for his employees, revamp his small bakery space with Plexiglas barriers, physical distancing markers and signs, find ways to limit customers in the store and ramp up disinfecting procedures.
   And then there was the people factor.
    While most of his regular customers have abided by coronavirus guidelines, many who come to his shop have put his employees’ and other customers’ health at risk.
    “The biggest challenge is dealing with customers that are ignorant or rude or nonbelievers,” Polon said. “Even now, we’re ten months into it and we’re still having arguments with people about wearing a mask. Honestly, that’s the most stressful part.”
    And for a small business, keeping employees healthy is critical. Bakery employees can’t work from home.
    “If one of my employees gets sick, we potentially have to close down our business,” he said. “We’ve had to deal with people who have been exposed and we have a whole protocol. Business basically stops, and that is scary.”
    So what can we do to help? Polon says to come try some Jewish comfort food at the bakery or put in a Postmates order.
    “Our little neighborhood bakery is really a dying industry because most people buy their bakery products at the supermarket. We’re always competing against that,” he said. “We are certainly glad that people are continuing to support us.”
    A bit farther east, Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center member Michele Masjedi has faced added strain as an educator and small business owner.
    Masjedi owns and operates The Journey Begins, a childcare program for infants and toddlers. She also helps run Celebration Kids preschool and afterschool program Beyond the Classroom in the South Pasadena area.
    The biggest struggle, she said, has been trying to make sense of constantly changing guidelines, health orders and regulations while also trying to provide an essential service and keep everyone healthy.
    With the rapidly changing situation in the state and added complications and restrictions in hard-hit Los Angeles County, her struggle to do the right thing while not going under is something nearly all businesses have faced.
    “The pandemic has directly affected my center. It has affected our business in every way,” Masjedi said. “We needed answers quickly and we could not get them. We’ve had to sort of forge our own path.”
    Masjedi said she feels like she has two competing goals. On one hand, she knows that childcare is badly needed by many essential workers and she needs to stay open to keep her business financially sound. On the other, she has concern for the health and safety of her staff and the families she serves.
    “I am directly responsible for the safety, health and care of everyone in my facility,” she said. “And as things continue to go in the wrong direction, I need help in navigating that. We are continuously put in this awful position.”
    Like Polon, she’s struggled to get the needed protective equipment for her staff and had to make big changes to comply with physical distancing, mask and capacity guidelines.
    “Childcare is absolutely essential, but at what point are we looking at need versus health and safety?” Masjedi said. “And it’s hard to make sense out of all of that.”
    The federal Paycheck Protection Program loan has helped a bit, but Masjedi said she is still not sure if she can use it to help pay for expenses and salaries during the time she had to close down completely. Another unanswered question.
    Families have dropped out due to concerns about sending their children to childcare amid rising cases, and required reduced staffing and classroom capacity has cut the center’s income in half. While she once had a 200-family waiting list, she’s now struggling to enroll enough kids to keep the lights on.
    “How are we expected to operate and continue all of our financial responsibilities, and yet operated at 50 percent income loss? And for how long?” Masjedi said. “Even if we do understand the health and safety reasons behind it.”
    As for what help she needs? Clarity on regulations, more coronavirus-related supplies, financial assistance and help managing aspects of her business — such marketing and pandemic-proofing a daycare — that she never thought she’d need to know how to do.
    And even with nearly a year of the pandemic under her belt, sadly, Masjedi says she feels more confused and concerned than ever.
    “I’ve been doing this for 25 years as a director and I have owned a program for 17 years, and I have never ever seen anything like what we have had to experience this past year,” she said. “And I don’t see that changing, realistically, anytime in the next six months.”
    Polon is also more than ready to say goodbye to The Rona.
    “We’re so close, we’re on the cusp,” Polon said. “The end can’t come soon enough.”

Lauren Gold is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine. 



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