San Jose businesses, like emerging butterflies, slowly began unfolding out of their cocoons this week. Like their fluttering counterparts, the retail, service and hospitality sectors have a new look and are still cautiously testing their wings.
Some didn’t survive the metamorphosis, and various observers said it is too soon to tell what the pandemic’s final business survival rate might be in San Jose.
“Uncertainty” was the word of the week.
Uncertainty about how things would work out with careful attention to public health guidelines, uncertainty about how employees would handle the new normal or if they would even show up. And the biggest uncertainty of all: if enough customers also would be venturing out of their havens to go to work and shop.
“People want a return to that sense of normalcy, and it’s important that we support them,” said Nate LeBlanc, of the San Jose Downtown Association (SJDA). “Right now, though, the mood is somewhat confusing. The state, the county and the city are all in different phases. There’s a push to reopen, but it’s unclear” what shape the new look for downtowns across the state will take.
LeBlanc estimated only about 15 percent of his association’s 1,600 members have reopened to pre-pandemic levels.
Across town, west and south, the two Westfield shopping malls in Santa Clara County, Valley Fair on Stevens Creek and Oakridge on Blossom Hill, re-opened Monday, with most stores still closed, limited hours, and health safety protocols in place, according to Westfield marketing director Kate Diefenderfer.
Westfield Valley Fair and Westfield Oakridge opened their doors at 11am, and will be open 11am to 7pm Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 6pm on Sundays. At Valley Fair, just 85 of the nearly 240 stores rolled up their gates as the mall doors opened.
The shopping centers said in a joint statement issued by Westfield that they had implemented “relevant government-mandated health and safety protocols as well as provide new services and amenities to address customer concerns during this initial recovery phase in the community.”
“Westfield is excited to open our doors again to the Santa Clara community as we begin our initial recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Leah Heil, VP of shopping center management for Westfield. “We are working closely with county officials and other relevant community groups to ensure a healthy, clean and safe environment for our customers, tenants and employees; and are committed to providing the best experience possible as business begins to operate at the centers.”
Westfield said all of its business tenants survived the three-month pandemic shutdown, and are expected to resume operations this summer.
In downtown San Jose, clubs, restaurants, parking garages and hotels all depend on the SAP Center, McEnery Convention Center and other tourist attractions to draw thousands of customers, especially in the city’s clear, sunny months.
Alas, there are no big gatherings this summer.
About 200 of the SJDA’s members are restaurants, which will be testing to see if outdoor seating can make up for the lost business of the interior seating restrictions, and keep them afloat. Many service businesses, such as technology, legal and financial services, can manage with many employees working and meeting remotely, which means their employees are not spending lunch and happy hours downtown, he noted.
Of special concern to the restaurants and clubs, LeBlanc said is that the city and county had not yet qualified for new relaxed alcohol regulations allowing the sale of drinks to outdoor customers. “We need the people who do this work at the county to get us on that list,” LeBlanc said. “That’s why it’s so confusing for my members.”
The city launched “San Jose Alfresco,” but county public health rules prevent its full implementation until testing numbers increase and COVID-19 cases trend lower.
“It would be nice if there is a coordinated effort by city and county officials,” he said.
Another concern of many businesses is delays in getting permits needed for public health renovations, LeBlanc said. SJDA has been helping many small businesses by pointing them to new sources of loans and government grants and “supporting our members doing virtual programming.” The association also has begun an online fundraiser through its foundation to help businesses damaged in protests against police brutality.
“It’s important to realize that we are not going back to normal, and that sense of uncertainty” will characterize the business climate through the summer at least, LeBlanc said. Some businesses won’t survive, he predicted. Some have already closed for good, although he didn’t say how many.
“Some leases ran out and some announced they are closing,” he said.
At the same time, he said “I have heard a lot of good stories about commercial landlords being really cool” and forgiving or extending lease payments, or waiving late penalties.
Valley Fair and Oakridge said its new protocols are focused on the health, safety, and convenience of all guests, as well as retailer and center employees. They include:
- Increasing frequency of cleaning measures following CDC and local health department guidelines, with a focus on high-touch areas such as restrooms, play areas, dining areas, and water fountains
- Controlling the number of guests entering the centers and crowds in dwell areas and queuing lines
- Implementing and enforcing relevant policies related to social distancing, face mask requirements for all employees and customers and other preventative measures
- Providing an increased number of hand sanitizer stations.
In addition, as its centers reopened, Westfield rolled out a suite of digital services to help address customer concerns as well as the needs of retailers and restaurants. These services include Line Pass, a digital queue system that offers a safer shopping experience by allowing customers to join a retailer waitlist or book an appointment in advance from their home, car or while in the center. Line Pass is available via the Westfield app, which can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play.
Westfield is also increasing the availability of customer service reps and offers a real-time response via text or web chat during hours of center operation to answer questions about store and center hours, promotions, and other topics.
Valley Fair completed a $1.1 billion expansion and renovations just before the pandemic hit, featuring a three-level flagship Bloomingdale’s, a new dining district on open-air pedestrian promenades and outdoor lounges. Westfield Oakridge anchor stores of Target, Macy’s and Nordstrom Rack all opened.