Business should be in full swing for Angela Martinez.
After a dormant winter, her small business Slab Cinema had lined up a slate of outdoor movie screenings for the spring. The venture accounts for more than half of her family’s annual income and also supports a handful of part-time employees.
But instead of projecting films at the San Antonio Museum of Art and local parks, she and her husband Rick are hunkered down at home with their two kids, waiting out the COVID-19 outbreak.
Beyond the cabin fever and lost revenue, Martinez worries about the effect the shutdown is having on San Antonio’s culture and emotional wellbeing. To be sure, we’re a city that thrives on shared experiences. Human interaction sustains our culture and provides our livelihoods.
“I’m really worried about our community losing those things that perpetuate our happiness,” Martinez said.
The numbers bear that out. Roughly 13% of San Antonio’s labor force, or 144,000 people, is reliant on the hospitality industry for a paycheck, according to U.S. Census data.
While employees in some industries can work at home, that’s not the case for the countless microbusinesses, from tire shops and taquerias, that make up a hefty swath of our local economy. Numerous workers rely on tips or face-to-face gig work to put food on the table.
“In San Antonio, our industries tend to be the type that when people stop spending, it has a deep impact,” said Trinity University economics professor John Huston. “When they cancel that convention downtown, when they cancel that trip to SeaWorld, we feel it. I suspect [the pandemic] will hit us harder than other parts of the country.”
Even before city council issued its 30-day closure order for bars and restaurants, business was nearly dead at Tabitha Garcia-Rogers’ jewelry and vintage clothing shop Thrash Weave. She’d open the doors in hopes a few customers would drop by, but news of the growing pandemic was already keeping people at home.
She’s since stopped going to the shop and reached an agreement with her landlord, who owns the hair salon next door, to delay her May rent payment. Even though that helped, she knows that she can’t put off paying indefinitely.
If the shutdown continues much longer, Garcia-Rogers said she faces little choice but closing the shop. That will be a painful decision. She opened Thrash Weave with money she made selling a house in Austin before she relocated to San Antonio.
“Yes, it will hurt to lose the money, but at least it’s my own money,” she said. “There are countless people out there stuck with loans they can’t pay back.”
That sentiment is echoed by economists, who points out that many businesses look to banks for startup money. Many also took out loans after surviving the Great Recession so they could jumpstart their growth.
“Interest rates have been very low, so a lot of small businesses are carrying more debt than they usually would,” Trinity’s Huston said. “Now that they don’t have income coming in, I worry how they’ll be able to make the payments.”
Even those whose life savings aren’t tied up in the businesses they work for say they’re facing hard times.
For many service-industry workers, there’s simply not an easy Plan B while they wait for normal business to return. For many, it’s the only industry they’ve known. In some cases, both of a household’s earners take home paychecks from restaurants or bars.
Jonny Yumol, bar manager for Alamo Heights cocktail outpost Bar du Mon Ami, could see where things were headed before Nirenberg ordered the shutdown. With customers traffic dwindling, he began looking for short-term jobs at H-E-B and Amazon.
“I’ve talked to local restaurants that are doing to-go and delivery, to offer my services if needed,” he said. “Literally, my skills don’t translate to working from home.”
‘No Shows, No Work’
But it’s not just restaurateurs and retailers facing economic calamity. The cancellation of live events, from rock tours to touring Broadway shows, has ripped the livelihood from thousands of local workers who often live paycheck to paycheck.
Club soundman Brant Sankey hasn’t worked in nearly two weeks.
“Within about a two-minute window, every club I work for sent me a text saying, ‘No more live music until further notice,’” he said. “No shows, no work.”
While Sankey is thankful his wife still has her nine-to-five and can work remotely, the family is reining in its budget and burning through any cash they had set aside.
The shutdown also comes as Sankey is paying rent on a recording studio he opened in late 2018. He spent nine months outfitting the building before he could begin accepting sessions. Not long after the texts cancelling his club gigs, he got a flood of calls and emails from musicians cancelling their sessions.
“If this goes longer than three months, the studio is probably done,” he said. “That will break it.”
Waiting It Out
Part of the anxiety from local workers and business owners stems from having no idea how long the lean times will last. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s pandemic pointman, recently warned it will take “a few months” before life gets back to normal.
Roland Fuentes, a stagehand who works at a variety of San Antonio venues, watched as one concert after another rescheduled or cancelled. Now, the earliest he expects to draw a paycheck again is in two months — assuming tours aren’t postponed a second time.
“I don’t have a show I can work for 64 days,” he said. “I’ve got a little savings, so I’ve got something to live off for now. But I won’t in 64 days.”
Fuentes, who’s worked in the industry since the ’90s, warned that even if things return to relative normalcy by the end of the summer, the comeback won’t be immediate. It took nearly two years for work to build back up after 9/11.
“The people who are lucky enough to have a job after this is over are still going to be hurting,” he added.
Competition for short-term jobs is likely to be fierce. Even business owners are scrambling to find interim work so they can keep their doors open.
“I’ve already applied for a part-time job with H-E-B, because I might have to cash float myself for rent,” said Tyler Ybarra, owner of downtown coffee house Café Azteca. “At the end of the day, landlords can be as lenient or as strict as they want, but my responsibility is to pay the rent, and everything else is secondary.”
As they go into survival mode and stretch resources, small businesses may find themselves cooperating instead of competing if they want to stay open.
“What I’m thinking about doing is putting together a weekly get-together for small businesses to see how we can help each other out and see if there’s any ideas that we can facilitate, Ybarra added. “Whether that means saying, ‘Hey, I have more work here, you can send your baristas here,’ or ‘If you need coffee, here’s enough money for milk.’”
‘It Can’t Just Be the Artists’
Service industry-reliant communities reliant have rebounded after major disasters. New Orleans’ renaissance after Hurricane Katrina readily leaps to mind. In that case, champions from around the country, from famous musicians to celebrity chefs, urged people to travel to the Big Easy and take in its vibrant culture. Even then, it didn’t happen overnight — and many residents who fled never returned.
It’s unclear how such a rebuilding would work for San Antonio since every big metro in the United States is undergoing a similar economic catastrophe right now. Some, such as New York and Seattle, are already pandemic hot zones.
Local creators and small businesses say the community will need to help itself. Those who continue drawing a paycheck through the shutdown can help by buying local — both during and after the catastrophe. And, if they truly value the art and creativity that makes our community unique, they must be willing to spend to sustain it.
Artist and educator Michele Monseau worries the quarantine already may have done irreparable damage to some nonprofits that support local arts and culture. Sure, those with deep funding will be fine, but smaller ones are already teetering on the brink.
“When we come out of this, it can’t just be the artists supporting the artists, which is usually the way things work in San Antonio,” she said. “Everybody’s going to be underwater.”
Making Other Plans
In the meantime, local artists and small entrepreneurs say they can’t afford to wait for federal bailouts, loans or whatever form of aid may be coming. Instead, they’re proactively trying to figure out how to sustain themselves while people self-isolate.
Thrash Weave’s Garcia-Rogers, for example, set up an Etsy storefront to help sell jewelry and other items online. Even so, she understands those sales probably won’t be able to replace the walk-in traffic she’s lost.
Martinez of Slab Cinema has been in talks with the San Antonio Museum of Art and the City of Devine to hold drive-in movie screenings. If she can figure out the logistics of broadcasting the sound, families can gather in the safety of their cars and take in an evening’s entertainment. Although a shelter-in-place order, in talks at press time, would nix that idea.
The urgency Martinez feels to show movies again runs deeper than getting money flowing back into the family business. The profits, she added, were always secondary to building community and sharing something she loves.
“I believe the fortitude and resilience of the creative community will sustain,” Martinez said. “We will come out profoundly changed but will still maintain the essence that makes San Antonio so special. I have to believe that, or I think it would be impossible to get out of bed.”
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