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SF’s Beloved Small Businesses Say A Sad, Quiet Goodbye As Chance Of Quick Economic Rebound Disappears

By Heather Knight San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As Heather Knight reports, "Small businesses have long been the lifeblood of San Francisco, anchoring our eclectic neighborhoods and bringing us joy that Amazon never could. But this is proving to be the summer of their demise, as scores of stores have quietly shuttered for good."

San Francisco

They were the quintessential San Franciscans -- upbeat, quirky artists who showed our flawed city in its best light, who donated proceeds to crucial causes and who became beloved centerpieces of their neighborhood.

But soon Annie Galvin and her husband and business partner, Eric Rewitzer, will not be San Franciscans at all. The founders of 3 Fish Studios -- famous for its iconic prints of the 49 Mile Drive's seagull and a bear cradling the state of California, among others -- have sold their house in the Outer Richmond. They're closing their storefront in the Outer Sunset and leaving the city.

Businesses like 3 Fish Studios hung on through March when the shutdown began. Through April, May, June and July. But each month brings new bills, and there's no end in sight to our twin nightmares of a rampant virus and clobbered economy. Galvin and Rewitzer offered curbside service, but it didn't pay the bills.

Small businesses have long been the lifeblood of San Francisco, anchoring our eclectic neighborhoods and bringing us joy that Amazon never could. But this is proving to be the summer of their demise, as scores of stores have quietly shuttered for good.

"We definitely on a monthly basis were spending much more than we were taking in," Rewitzer said. "How long can you expect to go on?"

They received $40,000 through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, but that didn't last long. They also scored $100,000 through a separate federal program called the Economic Injury Disaster Loan, but they'll have to pay that back. They didn't want to keep taking on additional debt with no assured revenue so they called it quits.

Countless other small businesses around San Francisco have made the same calculation, often locking their doors permanently with no fanfare or send-off. Neighbors just notice that one day, the boutique or bookstore they loved so much was there, and the next, it wasn't.

At least half of San Francisco's restaurants are expected to close forever.

Already on that list are treasured spots like the diner It's Tops in the Castro, the 83-year-old Louis' Restaurant overlooking Sutro Baths and Zanze's Cheesecake on Ocean Avenue.

Also on the read-it-and-cry list? The Castro nightclub, Badlands. The Noe Valley children's bookstore, Charlie's Corner. Several unique shops along Sacramento Street including the Ribbonerie and Woodchuck Antiques. The Mission District bike shop, Pedal Revolution. The Cole Valley toy store, Tantrum. The West Portal gift shop, GG's. Bernal Yoga in Bernal Heights. And so many more.

So what can we do but add this to the list of Everything That's Awful About 2020? The federal government can't seem to accomplish much of anything these days, and infusing more money into the Paycheck Protection Program should be high on its long to-do list.

Locally, some action is thankfully being taken. Mayor London Breed has announced some business fees will be deferred until next year, and Supervisor Gordon Mar is pushing legislation to waive licensing and registration fees for small businesses entirely for the next year.

San Franciscans should also support the Save Our Small Businesses measure on November's ballot. In a city that made it way too hard to open and run a small business even in the best of times, it would speed up the permitting process, allow nonprofits to open offices in retail districts and make it harder for neighbors to object to a new business if it is allowed under zoning laws.

That's all great, but small business commissioners point out there's a relatively simple action the city can take right now to help: Close some blocks to cars so restaurants and businesses can move their operations outside where people are safer from the spread of the coronavirus.

The city's Shared Spaces program has approved scores of closures of parking spaces for tables, as well as letting restaurants move tables onto sidewalks. But in terms of closing entire blocks so businesses can operate together in a relatively safe, fun, spread-out, plaza-style atmosphere, it's been very slow going.

City data show there have been about 100 requests to close commercial blocks to cars, and just 13 have been approved. Only a handful, including Valencia Street, are actually up and running. Forty-seven have been flatly rejected, and others are still under consideration. Very slow consideration, of course. This is San Francisco.

One of those rejected outright was a proposal to close a block of Front Street between California and Sacramento streets. Andrew Chun, owner of the historic German beer hall Schroeder's, said several businesses envisioned turning the block into an Oktoberfest-style outdoor gathering spot until they can resume normal operations.

But the city rejected the idea, not over concerns about beer-swillers spreading the virus, but because it would be "too impactful in terms of circulation and congestion in the Financial District," according to an email to Schroeder's staff from the Shared Spaces program. Never mind there are hardly any cars in the Financial District now.

"There's just no one there -- it's kind of like the zombie apocalypse," Chun said.

For now, he's waiting on a federal rescue package or vaccine and living on his wife's income. But other business owners aren't so patient.

"Reality is sinking in, and people are coming to the sad conclusion that it's not sustainable," said Sharky Laguana, president of the city's Small Business Commission.

He noted that the ripple effects are horrendous since each small business in the city employs an average of 10 workers, and those employees' federal unemployment help of $600 a week has just dried up with no deal to replenish it yet reached.

Laguana said he's "laser-focused" on expanding the Shared Spaces program and ensuring more blocks quickly close to cars to allow businesses to spread out. Giving restaurants that usually serve 30 tables permission to move, say, four tables into a couple of parking spaces just delays the inevitable closure.

"This is a golden opportunity. We need to pick up the speed," he said.

Manny Yekutiel, owner of the civic engagement space Manny's and another small business commissioner, said the shuttering of two blocks of Valencia Street four nights a week so businesses can take over the roadway has provided "a pathway to make it through this."

"It's causing a renewal, and people are being brought back to life," he said, while acknowledging the approval process was "a bureaucratic morass" that needs to be made far easier.

He said he'd also like to see the city be more thoughtful and nuanced about which businesses can reopen, rather than shutting down entire industries indefinitely. Gyms, hair salons, nail salons, bars, massage parlors and entertainment venues cannot open and have been given no information about when that might change -- even if they've put a lot of time and money into coming up with plans to open safely.

As for the owners of 3 Fish Studios, they'll still be creating artwork and selling it online and in retail shops in the city. They just won't live here anymore or have a store presence.

They're packing up for a permanent move to their cabin in Plymouth (Amador County), a 2 1/2 -hour drive and a world away from the bustle of San Francisco.

"It has a population of 1,022," Rewitzer said.

Soon to be 1,024.

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