As summer brings a tourist rush to San Juan Bautista, one of the few signs that COVID-19 shut the town down three months ago is the shop owners who politely remind you to put on your face mask before entering their stores. The City of History adds another marker to its varied timeline: it is waking up again as the state loosens restrictions.
Kammie Osborn has owned Jan’s Rock Shop for almost three years. She reopened on May 17 to an enthusiastic but small crowd.
“People were excited, being out and about and being able to buy things,” Osborn said. “We had a line outside the shop of people who were willing to wait for the chance to come inside. People were needing to get out and stepping back in time and history here in San Juan is a great opportunity for them and for us.”
Like all merchants, Osborn had to meet the requirements set forth by the state which included new cleaning and health standards, marking the floors with arrows to indicate the direction of traffic within the store, mandatory face masks for employees and customers, and a strict limit on the number of people inside the store.
“In the initiative I typed up, I had to give things like a time limit for customers for when they are just browsing,” Osborn said. “But if a large family wants to come in, say 10 people, I will close and lock the door so they can shop together.”
One issue is how to deal with shelf stock after customers have gone through the shops.
“A local woman makes an all-natural sanitizing spray that we sell here,” said Barbara Gonzales of Visions. “We use that to spray everything and we have wipes to go over the glass and surfaces between customers.”
Like Osborn, Gonzales has been surprised by the influx of tourists to San Juan.
“We are seeing a lot more people coming into town than we did last year at this time,” she said. “I think people are just wanting to get out amongst other people, to be able to touch things and smell our candles. They need that.”
Margot Tankersley has kept her shop, Margot’s Ice Cream Parlor, open as an essential business throughout the shelter-in-place order. She has also noticed a dramatic increase in business now that word has gotten out that the city is open for customers.
“I think my business has doubled since other shops are getting started again,” Tankersley said. “Even with the mission closed, we are seeing the kind of business that we would see after Mass on Sundays.” The mission was closed until June 9 but held its first mass on June 14 and the gift shop is open for business.
The Old Mission San Juan Bautista is one of the city’s major economic drivers, along with festivals and events held during the course of the year, all of which have been canceled. Another important group of customers may not return any time soon: fourth grade students from around the state on their field trips to the mission and San Juan Bautista State Historic Park. The park has not set a date for re-opening yet.
“Do I miss the kids? The 40,000 kids who come in every year? I do,” Osborn said. “They do bring money into the town, but mostly I miss how excited they are about the rock cycle and how the earth produces all these beautiful minerals.”
San Juan shop owners tried and failed to get any government assistance in reopening their businesses. Gonzales said she was turned down for loans, but finally qualified for unemployment under the Pandemic Relief Program. Osborn applied for unemployment, but was denied twice. She applied for and was granted one of the small business loans, but said she is still waiting for the money.
Claudia Lopez at the Guatemalan Boutique was able to work with the city to get some help, which allowed her to avoid rushing into reopening.
“I am incredibly grateful to San Juan Bautista. We have the business liaison Lizz Turner and she’s worked really hard for us,” Lopez said. “She’s called me and she is there to help.”
One big concern on her mind is her favorite employee, her mother Connie, who is in an at-risk age group.
“I wouldn’t have opened the store unless I had it safe for her,” Lopez said. “I put in plexiglass and I did not get greedy with my hours. I decided my mom and I would only open on Saturday and Sunday at first. We want to protect our customers and we want to protect ourselves. We have to be able to protect each other for this to work and I feel comfortable with the steps we have taken.”
City Manager Don Reynolds has overseen the issues of reopening and is encouraged by the progress so far.
“We have seen the businesses in this town come together and that has been great,” he said. “We established our city liaison program and have been holding bi-weekly meetings with business owners trying to smooth the transition as they open.”
One plan in the works is being called “the Transformation of Third Street,” which will create a single lane of traffic down the main thoroughfare heading west that will provide an additional 12 feet of space for businesses to use as outdoor dining and retail space. This will allow each business more space for customers and better social distancing. The transformation begins June 22.
With all the restrictions and the lack of events, the merchants still have faith in the future of San Juan Bautista.
“It hits hard, it really does,” Lopez said. “But San Juan is very resilient. We’ve been around a long time and we have seen times when people had to close after recessions like in 2008. But we survived and will survive this time. We are strong and we are very positive about it. I am excited about starting up again.”
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