OCEANSIDE — It’s no secret that businesses everywhere have been negatively affected by COVID-19, but for brand new businesses the issues were twofold as they faced the unique struggle of dealing with not only the first year of operations but also the pandemic.
The original shutdown in March stopped nearly everyone in their tracks and forced new business owners like Rushell Gordon to postpone their openings.
Gordon was set to open Bliss Tea & Treats in March, but that date ended up getting pushed back to May.
“It was kind of surreal how it all happened,” Gordon said.
Construction of her business had finally finished, the city had already conducted its inspections and she was only waiting on the county health department to grade her. Then, she got a call that the health department couldn’t come out due to the pandemic.
Not too long after that the health department ended up visiting her teashop and gave her an A grade, but she had to change a few things to operate under COVID-19 restrictions. At first, she operated on a to-go basis before eventually opening to 25% capacity when restrictions lifted in late spring.
Gordon’s Bliss Tea & Treats is one of several businesses that opened its doors in downtown Oceanside during the pandemic.
According to Gumaro Escarcega, the program manager of MainStreet Oceanside, there were nine businesses that opened in the downtown district during the pandemic and a handful of others that opened right before the pandemic struck.
The federal government and the City of Oceanside created loan programs to help small businesses get through the pandemic, but many new businesses didn’t qualify.
“That was one of the toughest things — we realized that the only way businesses qualified for grants and loans is if they had 2019 financials,” Gordon said. “I didn’t have payroll until May 2020 so I didn’t qualify for anything.”
Recently, Oceanside City Council approved an additional $700,000 in funding for grants to small businesses impacted by COVID-19. The program provides grants ranging from $1,000 to $7,500 to businesses based on which tiers they fall under.
For example, businesses like Gordon’s who opened after March 15, 2020, and have been mandated to either close or significantly alter their businesses due to COVID-19 would fall under Tier 2.
Businesses that opened before March 15, 2020 fall under Tier 1 and Tier 3 applies to businesses that are home-based or are part of a franchise that has had to close or alter business activity.
MainStreet Oceanside, the downtown business association, has been helping small businesses by providing guidance and information on how to apply for loans as well as promoting businesses on social media.
“We’re basically here to support small businesses in downtown in any way they need,” Escarcega said.
Last spring, MainStreet Oceanside teamed up with Gordon, who came up with the Oceanside Strong campaign to raise money for local small businesses. The campaign raised $12,000 through t-shirt and facemask sales along with other donations.
Business for Gordon picked up during the summer after businesses were allowed to reopen on a limited capacity.
Gordon’s business, Bliss Tea & Treats, is a full-service tearoom that provides lunch, deserts and more than 30 varieties of tea and specialty drinks, including tea-infused non-alcoholic mocktails. Bliss also offers high tea time, which is historically experienced between lunch and dinner, throughout the entire day.
Bliss had a good summer of business with tourists still visiting the city, but Gordon knew that business would start to wind down after the season. She introduced themes by redecorating her entire tearoom, starting with the Mad Hatter Tea Party theme in October.
“We did that so the locals would come out and it worked,” Gordon said.
Gordon then introduced her Winter Wonderland theme for December, but things took a rough turn that month after the most recent shutdown forced Southern California businesses back to takeout only.
“That really affected our December sales,” Gordon said. “December was probably the worst month.”
Gordon temporarily closed Bliss Tea & Treats after Dec. 20. She plans to open back up with takeout services on Jan. 28.
COVID-19 has challenged nearly every business downtown in some way, but Escarcega and Gordon remain hopeful about economic recovery.
“I strongly believe businesses will be able to sustain themselves and come back and do well as the economy opens up,” Escarcega said. “The interest and investment of downtown haven’t stopped.”
Gordon called Oceanside a “resilient town” whose businesses are doing their best to get through with positive attitudes despite the ups and downs of openings and shutdowns, coming up with creative solutions along the way.
“I think we’re all going to be okay,” she said.