Are San Diego’s retail stores actually reopening Friday? County’s new guidelines may not change much

Emma Pryor, center, and her son, Ruffin and Whit, visit Replay Toys in North Park before the shutdown on Jan. 24, 2020.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Confusion and uncertainty over details of a potential reopening Friday has business owners questioning how meaningful the government announcement really is


Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Monday announcement about the reopening of some retail businesses by Friday had both shoppers and shop owners anticipating a swift change in San Diego County.

But concerns are rising as to whether any changes will come to fruition.

Newsom announced yesterday that low-risk retail companies such as bookstores, music stores, toy shops, florists, sporting goods retailers and others can reopen for curbside service Friday under guidelines to be announced Thursday.

This has led to some confusion, though, as many aren’t clear which stores are considered low-risk and which aren’t — and no clarifications will be made until the day before shops are allowed to reopen, government officials said.

Adding to the uncertainty are baffled retailers who say the governor’s update doesn’t actually change anything. Many retail companies that were forced to close their stores during the shutdown have been offering curbside pickup for weeks. Big chains like Nordstrom, Kohl’s, GameStop and JOANN Fabrics have had drive-up service and curbside pickup throughout much of the shutdown.

Even mom-and-pop retailers have been offering this service to maintain a small stream of income while their stores sit empty.

“Have (government officials) seen a retail store in the past two months? We’re all doing curbside pickup,” said Melanie Michoud, owner of clothing store Graffiti Beach in South Park and boutique Thread & Seed in Bankers Hill.

Bookstore owner Jennifer Powell, who runs The Book Catapult in South Park with her husband, Seth Marko, said she’s considered whether the government update is more symbolic than pragmatic.

“I wonder if this is meant to be a beacon of hope so that we all don’t end up in a hopeless, desperate place,” Powell said. “They’re giving us hope that things will return to normal; that it won’t be six months away.”

Jennifer Powell, co-owner of The Book Catapult, in South Park, works in the store on January 30, 2020.
(Howard Lipin/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Local versus state rules: Which set to follow?

Despite the governor’s words, some retailers think San Diego officials might allow them to reopen their physical stores for browsing as early as Friday, thanks to some language in a county document published this week.

Following Newsom’s update, San Diego County officials said they were ready to reopen retail businesses as soon as the governor allowed. But in their guidelines published Monday afternoon, retail businesses in San Diego are only “encouraged” to offer curbside pickup “when feasible,” but it doesn’t appear to be a requirement.

Those guidelines were endorsed by both San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer and San Diego County Supervisor Greg Cox, and supported by a unanimous vote by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

State rules normally trump regional rules. However, Newsom did grant regional officials the freedom to design their own plans for reopening businesses in his announcement Monday, as long as the counties met state requirements on testing capacity, hospitalization and ICU numbers, among other factors.

It is unclear if San Diego County has met those benchmarks. In a news conference Tuesday, Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said the county won’t know if they meet the state’s guidelines until Thursday.

Asked if the county plans to offer more flexibility to retail businesses than what the governor allows, a spokesperson said it’s still unclear until Newsom’s Thursday announcement. But the spokesperson added it was “unlikely we’ll go beyond what is stated (by the governor).”

This leaves business owners scratching their heads, wondering what exactly they should be prepared for later this week.

“The uncertainty is not just from today or yesterday, but since the very beginning,” said Fred Princen, owner of Play It Again Sports in Pacific Beach. “Businesses stayed open or they closed, not really knowing if they should have. I sell bikes, which is essential transportation, but I also sell other things. Should I have stayed open?”

He decided to shut down on March 18. But after seeing Big 5 Sporting Goods, a large chain and direct competitor, remain open, Princen decided to at least sell goods online and soon after began offering curbside pickup.

Thread & Seed in Banker's Hill.
(Courtesy of Thread & Seed)

Reopening Friday, if it is allowed, will be complicated

For small business owners, reopening their stores — especially on short notice — is tricky. Many shops have laid off their entire staff, with owners manning pickup orders themselves to stay afloat.

Rehiring their staffers is problematic, said Kimberly Jonell, owner of Replay Toys in North Park.

“I’m trying to hire back, but a lot of my workers are getting paid more on unemployment than they were making here,” she said.

In the meantime, Jonell, who is a single mother of two young boys, is running her shop solo with curbside pickup while also homeschooling her children.

Michoud, the boutique owner, said asking her employees to come back puts her in an uncomfortable situation. She’s accepted a government loan through the Payroll Protection Program. In order for her loan to be forgiven, she must use most of the money to pay her employees. But many don’t wish to return.

“They’re making twice as much on unemployment than they were making here,” she said. “Either I’m out $40,000 for these loans, or my employees’ unemployment gets ripped out from under them.”

She says hiring new staff will still be cumbersome because a large percentage of the retail workforce is getting unemployment checks right now. If they’re not, the workers may be inexperienced and need extra training.

Even if shop owners could open their doors to browsing Friday, many aren’t prepared to do that. Michoud said her shop currently looks like a warehouse, with boxes everywhere from her e-commerce business.

Powell, the bookstore owner, said her shop is currently a construction zone, with necessary renovations underway. Even if the store was in perfect condition, reopening under new — and often changing — guidelines would require extra planning and labor.

“We’re operating with a skeleton crew and it would be a massive undertaking to reorganize the store, police our customers, and sanitize the store on some kind of schedule,” Powell said.

Plus, she’s not confident yet that reopening is the best thing for the community. The shop space is small and she’s uncertain if social distancing will be able to be enforced. Until more guidelines are made clear, she’s holding off making any final decisions about when the store will reopen.