Watsonville small businesses
Kelly Pleskunas, owner of Kelly's Books in Watsonville, stands with her pandemic safety sign Oct. 1. — Tarmo Hannula/The Pajaronian

WATSONVILLE—First came the coronavirus in March and then the fires and smoke in August. While the CZU August Lightning Complex fire in the Santa Cruz Mountains is 100% contained, the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

What have the dual disasters meant for Watsonville’s local businesses? So far, it has been a mixed bag with some positive stories.

Kelly Pleskunas, who owns Kelly’s Books in Watsonville Square, says that business has slowed during the pandemic, but that customers continue to stop by and browse.

“The store is staying afloat,” she said. “What I see are more people shopping locally and not just going to places like Amazon.”

The pandemic has brought about changes for the independent book store. A large sign reading “masks required” now sits at the front of Pleskunas’ business. She’s also plastered physical distancing signs throughout and has made hand sanitizer available for all customers.

“It’s the new new and people largely are making these adjustments,” she said.

Additionally, she said she is not open seven days a week anymore, and no longer has employees.

“I know what I’m doing to keep me and my customers safe,” she said.

At Freedom Meat Lockers, 160 Hi Grade Lane, manager Will Panis said the family-owned business is still maintaining its same hours and continues to feature its full-service meat counter and deli.

“Our customers keep coming—it’s almost a steady flow with many of them regular locals,” Panis said. “We still manage to offer the same products and the same great service. So far we’re glad to say it feels like business as planned.” 

Panis said he has seen an uptick in people escaping the confines of their home and heading into the mountains with their families on a camping trip. That often means stopping in to bring something for the barbecue.

“Our wide range of marinades are great for the grill,” he said. “Some people say they simply need a break. I hear things like, ‘Let’s get out of here; I’m tired.’ But we continue to say, ‘Hang in there. We’ll get through this: It’s not going to be this way forever.’”

According to the Small Business Pulse Survey conducted by the Census Bureau during Sept. 20-26, 73.7% of small businesses requested financial assistance from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Additionally, 45.4% of people responding to the weekly survey say it will take more than six months for their businesses to return to normal levels. So far, 44.8% of small businesses have furloughed paid employees since the pandemic began, and around 40% of them have not re-hired those employees.

But 61.2% of small businesses experienced no change in operating revenues during Sept. 20-26, a possible indicator that, at least for now, businesses have started to find their footing in the shifting economic landscape.

At Sierra Azul Nursery and Gardens, 2660 E. Lake Ave., owner Jeff Rosendale said he has witnessed a “big upswing in gardening” since the pandemic struck. 

“People value that time at home and they’re enjoying that more than ever,” he said. “We were closed for a few days in March. But this has really been a good year for us. The art shows were delayed a month but sales of sculptures are really good. What I’m seeing is that people are paying more attention to their surroundings; they’re making their property nicer while adding value and beauty. More plants in the ground equals more oxygen in the air.”

Rosendale said he’s seen a spike in sales during spring in vegetables, herbs and fruit trees. 

“We sold more edible plants in two months than the whole year,” he said.

The nursery includes two acres of demonstration gardens featuring mature plants and sculptures from local artists.

“People feel safe here in the garden surrounded by all this art,” he said.

Dave Peterson, owner of Corralitos Market & Sausage Co., 569 Corralitos Road, said his products continue to fly off the shelves at their full-service meat counter, deli and grocery.

“We’ve been really busy right from the start of the pandemic. We’re learning that people are really liking these small stores,” Peterson said. “I am truly thankful for them and their support. People have been wearing masks and distancing and working through this.”

Peterson said it takes a staff of 25 to run the market, and that he is searching to hire more people to keep up with demand.

“We’ve been slammed,” he said. “During the power outage, we opened our storage up to the public because people were afraid they’d lose everything. We did it without charge; this is our community and we have to look out for each other.”

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Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. More recently Good Times & Press Banner. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.


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