Small businesses struggle to make ends meet as COVID-19 takes toll

Cal students witness the effects of the pandemic on local stores


Photo by Jake Gerbracht

Small business Orient Express has struggled financially throughout the pandemic

Every six weeks, sophomore Srinidhi Kanchi Krishnamachari pulls up in front of San Ramon Orthodontics for her routine appointment, finding herself in the solemn and sanitized office that has replaced the friendly smiles of the staff.

Although Kanchi Krishnamachari can safely return to the comfort of her home after a quick check-up, the same does not ring true for the owners and employees of San Ramon Orthodontics who are plagued by the uncertainties of this time.

Now more than nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic, many local establishments such as San Ramon Orthodontics are struggling to run lucrative businesses in the midst of safety regulations and clients’ fear of contracting the virus.

Kanchi Krishnamachari, a long-time patient at the orthodontics office, has seen an immense shift in the way the business is run in the wake of safety restrictions. These restrictions pose several challenges to the employees as well as the practice as a whole.

“[Many patients] have to go [to the office], but I think a lot of families haven’t been coming because they’re too afraid,” Kanchi Krishnamachari said. “There’s a lot less nurses and technicians there too.”

Orthodontist Dr. Hannah Karkhanechi, DDS, of San Ramon Ramon Orthodontics and her staff have instituted several changes over the past few months to keep their patients safe and on their schedules.

We have opened up more days to make sure that we can accommodate all of our patients since we need to take more time per patient for proper screening for COVID-19,” Karkhanechi said. “That might mean that you’re offered fewer options for scheduling your appointment or virtual appointments.”

San Ramon Orthodontics has also had to remove waiting room toys and magazines, and has prioritized sanitation at every step of an appointment.

Although most students have diligently stayed at home to maintain social distancing, many have continued their routine dental and orthodontic appointments. In this process, they have seen safety measures firsthand.

“[The orthodontists] will make sure that whenever you come in, they check your temperature,” sophomore Tanvi Pandya said. “When we organize a meeting, they’ll ask if we’ve been in a gathering or seen someone beforehand.”

Aside from her mandatory dental health visits, Pandya and her family have consciously frequented many family-owned restaurants and other small businesses in the area in an attempt to help them out in a time of economic crisis.

“We’re a lot luckier than most people in this situation right now,” Pandya said. “It’s been really hard on a lot of these places to the point where they’ve had to shut down because funds are so low.”

Pandya and her family have done their best to buy gift cards, eat at family-owned restaurants, and donate to local causes.

But even with loyal and considerate customers, small businesses still face hurdles in their daily operations.

“Three to five percent of people don’t want to wear a mask when they come in [to the restaurant],” said Michelle Chen, owner of local restaurant Orient Express. “They think you’re easy going because you are a small family business. Not everyone will follow the rules.”

Such behavior from customers only piles on to the immense financial and personnel-related burdens that small businesses are shouldering amidst safety regulations.

“Business has dropped by about 25 percent, and we have to pay [our employees] more [while] we make much less money,” Chen said. “Two employees quit because they’re scared to come to work, [and] I have to do three people’s jobs to pay my rent.”

Like many local businesses, Chen feels that the safety of her employees and herself has been overlooked by the community.

“Everybody worries about people who work in hospitals and supermarkets because they are very important, but I don’t hear anything about small businesses,” Chen said. “We are in danger too, [and] we need more encouragement for what we face.”

Sophomore ice hockey player Sejal Patel, who frequents locally owned businesses and has seen the difficulties her own family’s ice rink faces, says that in times like these, people should do their best to support small businesses, even if it just means wearing a mask. 

Even the smallest health violation by a customer can lead to citations from officers and other consequences for vulnerable businesses.

“Just follow the rules,” Patel said. “Small businesses are getting flagged just because of people [who don’t wear] masks.”

Although the struggles of running a small business during a pandemic seem insurmountable, some businesses such as local yoga studio YogaSukham have made the best of their situation.

“There have been some huge benefits [of shifting to an online format],” YogaSukham co-owner Varsha Prakash said. “We have people from across the Bay Area, people from other states, and people from other countries join us for classes.”

Despite being stuck at home, YogaSukham has managed to build a student network across the globe while retaining a strong connection with each individual yoga practitioner.

“We never would have thought that in our advanced times, we would have been locked down in a virus,” Prakash said. “But here we are.”

Prakash’s message to the community is to engage in self-care, whether that be a run, an hour of yoga, or even just a deep breath. Amidst economic, familial, and personal struggle, she says that people must strive to find their anchor in the chaos.

“Once we are stable, grounded, and connected to ourselves, we can take care of ourselves, our family, and our work,” Prakash said. “There are things that we can’t control, but whatever situation we are in, we [must] find something positive in [it].”