Confusion, disappointment follow orders impacting local retailers

Note: This story has been updated to correct errors in the original story related to Yamagami's Nursery.

Conflicting shelter-in-place orders between Santa Clara County and the state have left local businesses confused over how – or if – they can operate.

The county’s latest order, issued April 29 and effective through May 31, allowed nonessential construction work, landscaping and nursery operations to conduct business once again. But it didn’t permit curbside pickup at small retail outlets, such as bookstores, florists and clothing boutiques – operations that Gov. Gavin Newsom’s revised state guidelines, announced May 4, do allow.

“We got all excited (when hearing the announcement), but then we went, ‘Wait,’” said Mary Sheila McMahon, events manager at Linden Tree Books on State Street.

Los Altos businesses were disappointed to discover that the county’s more restrictive order supersedes the state’s. That means most retailers are still limited to online sales and deliveries.

Ellen Biolsi, owner of Cranberry Scoop on State Street, said she was “a little confused” by the conflicting orders. She called Anthony Carnesecca, the city’s economic development coordinator, who clarified that the county’s rules prevail.

County officials responded to the confusion Thursday, clarifying that the current shelter-in-place directive does not allow for retail curbside pickup.

“We will continue to study the indicators that tell us how the coronavirus is affecting our communities and amend the health orders as warranted in the best interest of community health,” officials with the county’s Office of Emergency Management said in a May 7 press release. “We share the urgency to reopen and restore our economies and our normal activities, and the equal importance of doing so in a way that is safe, responsible and does not cause a significant increase in serious illness and death, or overwhelm our healthcare delivery systems.”

As for when businesses may fully resume operations, Carnesecca said: “We don’t know what the timeline looks like (for reopening).”

He noted the reopening of businesses in states like Georgia and Texas will be a “litmus test” for the county and the state, in terms of how allowing walk-in service at restaurants and retail stores will impact the number of coronavirus cases.

Waiting and wondering

Biolsi said it’s been difficult conducting business from inside her locked-in retail gift store. She’s received some orders through calls and emails, and she’s working on a revamped online presence. She’s even brought items to show to people through the window.

“I’ve done some business, but it’s basically nothing,” she said of activity during the shelter-in-place.

Other retailers, though temporarily shuttered, are keeping busy, waiting for the word to reopen.

“We have been closed, but we’ve been coming in, working behind the scenes,” said Khatchig Jingirian, president of Smythe & Cross, a fine-jewelry store on Main Street. “We’re trying to stay in business, trying to stay relevant.”

Like Cranberry Scoop, Jingirian has been ramping up his store’s online presence, and he’s even made personal deliveries – making a point of sanitizing his merchandise.

“I’ve been at my wit’s end trying to figure out what we can and can’t do,” he said last week.

Still, Jingirian remained upbeat.

“I’m trying to stay away from the gloom and doom,” he said.

McMahon said Linden Tree is doing “as well as can be expected. We are still doing online basically.”

Employees have been Face-timing with customers, showing them products so they can see before purchasing. McMahon is doing virtual storytime readings for children four times a week.

While the shutdown is hurting business, McMahon believes there’s an example to set as a store specializing in children’s books.

“We need to show patience,” she said, as parents teach their kids.

‘Devastating’ impact

Carol Garsten, owner of Nature Gallery on State Street, said her closed retail operation has been “devastating.”

“As soon as the shelter-in-place started, I instantly had one of my employees set up online shopping on my Nature Gallery website,” she wrote in a letter to the Town Crier. “I regularly send out emails to my clients. I provide free shipping and delivery of most of my online offerings.”

But it isn’t enough.

Garsten is hoping a $250,000 small-business relief fund the Los Altos City Council approved April 28 will help. Carnesecca said he is working on program guidelines that will be sent back to the council for approval.

In the meantime, owners of outdoor businesses initially allowed to continue operating in mid-March only to be shut down in April by a revised shelter-in-place order were relieved by the new order
permitting them to reopen.

“I’m happy. I’m happy for all the nurseries,” said Brittany Sheade, owner of Yamagami’s Nursery in Cupertino. “It’s been a crazy, long process.”

Sheade fought to keep her business operational, working with county officials though her attorney. She managed to reopen April 25 under the condition that 25% of her floor space contained products were deemed essential.

She collected 12,000 signatures on a petition to reopen, including support from Los Altos residents. She cited 400 emails over two days from customers wanting products.

“The demand is definitely out there,” she said. “They want to grow their own food, they want to work in the yard.”

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