How small businesses in California are coping with COVID-19
Audrey Liu, Reporter Zhen Wang, Jinxin Wang, Yulin Xu, Jonathan Huang, Tamami Honma, Joanne Zeng, Sandra Li Examining the different ways the sanctioned self-quarantine has affected small businesses, as well as newer startup companies
Since the first implementation of the shelter-in-place order across California in response to COVID-19, daily activities for many have been greatly affected. Small businesses have been especially hard hit by the lack of in-person interaction. In times of crisis like this, large organizations, such as schools and corporations, can make use of software like Zoom to minimize disruption to their operations.
Nevertheless, even the most advanced technology has its limitations and may not be able to serve everyone. As the amount of customers began dwindling, many small business owners no longer had a stable source of income. This is especially true for table tennis coach Zhen Wang, founder and head coach of SuperSpin Table Tennis Club, who has seen a decrease in students since the end of February. Normally having around 100 students (a rough estimate), most of them have stopped attending lessons by early March.
“Now that the government has stopped us from working, our income is virtually 0, yet we still have to pay the rent fee for our location.” Zhen Wang says. “We still have to pay for our residence, food, and daily necessities as well.”
Jinxin Wang, also a table tennis coach and founder of International Champions Academy, faces the same concern.
“Since there are no more students coming for lessons, I’ve temporarily lost my source of income,” he states, “and I can only wait until the quarantine period is over.”
For those like Zhen and Jinxin, whose profession involves lots of hands-on work and in-person guidance, the COVID-19 epidemic has greatly hindered the efficiency of their lessons even as they have turned to online learning. As of now, both have come up with two plans of action: the first emphasizing physical training and the second emphasizing the strategic aspect of table tennis. However, another problem arises: it cannot be guaranteed that students will continue attending lessons now that they have transitioned online. Zhen Wang cites this as a problem especially prominent amongst his younger students.
“Over here in the US, most kids learn table tennis purely as a form of recreation,” he observes. “For example, a kid who doesn’t know how to play table tennis can come to our club and be able to hit 30 rallies within 10 minutes, and that makes them happy and develop interest. But with video lessons, unless they want to go the professional route or they truly enjoy table tennis, their rate of participation is very low.”
The quarantine has affected those teaching in the music domain as well, and poses a different challenge for them. Tamami Honma, piano teacher and artistic director of Cal Arte ensemble, has had to adjust accordingly, as her students and colleagues have all transitioned to stay-at-home learning or working. However, staying home has given her more time to make recordings and to download the appropriate software to continue giving online lessons.
“All my work is with others so I’ve been affected 100% absolutely,” states Honma. “On a positive note, I am living more online, so distance is no longer an issue if I want to collaborate with people from far away.”
Looking beyond the Bay Area, businesses across the state have been dramatically hindered as well. Sandra Li, owner of a senior center near San Diego, is especially worried due to the at-risk demographics that her facility works with.
“What’s most difficult for us is that despite the shortage of supplies, our business has to keep running,” says Li. In urgent times like this, even buying the most basic groceries, such as food items and toilet paper, has become a great challenge. “Since the administrator can only buy a few things at once, they have to go frequently. This increases the risk of contamination, because they must travel back and forth between the store and the senior center.”*
Furthermore, Li cites the seclusion of her facility as another inconvenience. Ever since the beginning of the statewide lockdown, the Chinese-American population in California has turned to WeChat as a support platform, organizing groups to deliver food and other essentials to each other. Unfortunately, most Chinese-American communities are heavily centered in the Bay Area-- a 7 hour drive away from San Diego. Due to the sparse Chinese population in her area, Li cannot take advantage of this system, and lack of supplies remains a serious problem for her.
On a brighter note, the government has responded accordingly, and ever since the lockdown, the Small Business Administration system has provided relief and financial aid for individuals & organizations affected by the COVID-19 crisis. Yet there is still a long way to go, as Li points out: “Especially for senior care facilities, we’re always labelled as a priority, yet there hasn’t been much concrete action to solve the root of our problems.”
Some small businesses have had little to no disruption to their work, or have even been boosted rather than inconvenienced, by COVID-19. Yulin Xu, founder of enterprise software startup Olixus, has found additional opportunities to collaborate with her clients and to extend her company’s service to the public after the epidemic.
“It's interesting that people now have time to stay home, and many started calling us...we actually started to work on really cool projects over the phone together,” says Xu, “Because our company is a strategy software company, we help companies establish a healthy organization culture. So in other words, we very much focus on personal health.”
One of the most recent initiatives that Xu and her colleagues have started is their food delivery system, a partnership between their company and UncleFresh, a Chinese-language food delivery platform. As Xu points out, what differentiates their delivery service from others is their diversity of cuisine, their reasonable price, and their convenience.
Furthermore, in collaboration with one of their clients in the medical industry, Olixus has begun developing a home-testing kit for COVID-19, and the project has recently gotten FDA approval. Their kit relies on antibody detection to ensure that testing is effective for a longer period of time, and if it passes the EUA (emergency use authorization) stage, it will be available for home use within a year.
Similarly, Jonathan Huang, founder and CEO of robotics-based startup Liftians Inc. has pointed out that in the short-term, his communications with his customers have been offset by a few months. Due to concerns brought about by COVID-19, he and his employees can no longer travel back and forth between the US and China. However, he states that the epidemic would bring long-term benefits to the business.
“All the potential customers will come back after this coronavirus. They want to get business just as much as I want to get into it”, says Huang. Joanne Zeng, who runs a Chinese medicine shop in Cupertino, has seen an increase in customers due to the nature of her business. Although her shop is open for a shorter portion of the week and many of her customers visit less frequently, on average she has sold more products than usual. Together with all the other businesses in the plaza she works at, Zeng has also found ways to minimize the risk of contamination.
“Since our plaza doesn’t have many people and has a lot of space, [all the shop owners] have organized a plan deciding who goes to work at which times,” explains Zeng. The times are all spaced out, so we won’t have to crowd around each other.”
As the quarantine has allowed much more time home, this in turn has enabled many to take advantage of this time to pick up new hobbies, refine their craft, or simply spend more time with their family. On her off days, Zeng reads books about Chinese medicine and furthers her understanding of which specific herbal medications are effective against COVID-19. Jinxin has also found time to catch up on sleep and watch YouTube videos on topics he’s interested in.
In this trying time, connection between family and friends has proved to be especially important. “Sometimes we spend too much time on work, and we end up putting family as a secondary concern, which is not good,” says Jinxin. “Spending more time with family has allowed me to increase my bond with family members.”
However, small business owners have generally reached a consensus that the most helpful thing the public can do besides financially supporting them is simply to remain indoors.
“I think that what can help is to take [the epidemic] seriously and stay at home,” Xu says. “We may not have freedom anymore but we’re saving lives.”
(The interviews of Zhen Wang, Jinxin Wang, Sandra Li, and Joanne Zeng were conducted in Mandarin Chinese and translated to English.)