With the streets still and shrouded in darkness, Alicia Infante hops in her car and makes the 100-mile round-trip journey from East San Jose to San Francisco.
It’s 5 a.m. Infante needs to purchase a dozen bundles of flowers from the San Francisco Flower Mart and haul them to her shop in East San Jose before opening up for another long and quiet shift.
“It’s hard but it’s the only way to get more profit,” Infante said.
When customers stopped coming into Infante’s Boost Mobile store and her adjoining La Herradura clothing shop as frequently as they once did because of stay-at-home health orders, the 39-year-old business owner began teaching herself how to make floral arrangements and balloon bouquets. She launched a new business venture, Magnolia Flowers, and cleared out a section of her clothing shop to make room for the additional revenue source.
Even so, Infante, a single mother of three, is barely making enough money to get by.
Over the past decade, Latino small-business owners like Infante were the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the nation, but the financial strain created by the COVID-19 pandemic has put their success in jeopardy.
Across Santa Clara County, Latino residents are now becoming infected with the virus at more than quadruple the rate of White residents, according to county data. In Infante’s predominantly Latino neighborhood in East San Jose, one in every 10 people has tested positive for COVID-19. Meanwhile, in Palo Alto’s 94306 zip code, less than 1 in 100 residents have been infected by the virus, county data shows.
And just as the virus has hit Latinos across Santa Clara County harder than their White counterparts, it’s also devastating their businesses, especially those in the county’s epicenter of East San Jose.
Since the start of the pandemic nearly one year ago, Infante has racked up thousands of dollars in rent debt on her home and business, and because she’s an undocumented immigrant, she hasn’t qualified for any financial aid from the federal government.
“My business is the only thing that I have to support me and my kids,” she said. “I don’t want to be another business on the list to close their doors. I want to teach my children that this is possible.”
The Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative reported in May that 86% of Latino business owners had felt immediate negative impacts from COVID-19 — a rate higher than any other demographic — and were half as likely as White business owners to receive federal loans.
And for those who did qualify and have received aid in the form of loans, many payments will soon be coming due, a stark reality that could send even more Latino-owned businesses plummeting, according to Melida Alfaro, owner of the East San Jose accounting and taxation firm, Golden Professional Services.
“Businesses need to be running in order to pay those loans back. And if they’re not doing good, they’re going to end up closing with debt,” Alfaro said. “That’s what I’m most worried about.”
Just down the road from Infante’s shops, Connie Alvarez mans the counters of her family’s longtime jewelry business, Plaza Jewelers.
Up until July, Alvarez owned three businesses in the Alum Rock Santa Clara Street business district — the restaurant Plaza Garibaldi, the banquet venue Friendship Hall and the jewelry store Plaza Jewelers.
But Friendship Hall has been almost entirely closed since the region’s first shutdown order was enacted more than 300 days ago, and then this summer, Alvarez and her brother made the difficult decision to close their restaurant, ending 30 years in business.
Thanks to a statewide eviction moratorium, the pair were able to put off paying rent on the restaurant for four months, hoping that their revenues would rebound when they could open up for indoor dining and customers felt more comfortable going out to eat. But with $24,000 in debt to their landlord and no end in sight to the pandemic, Alvarez and her brother in July borrowed money to pay their back rent and walked away from the restaurant for good.
“After all of our hard work and all the sacrifices we made, it was sad to not get that opportunity to see it pay off,” Alvarez said. “But people are just not coming to our area. It’s the last place they want to go.”
Alvarez thinks she can hang onto the banquet hall until at least April without any events, but after that, she may have to shutter yet another business.
“I’m exhausted of not knowing what’s going to happen and how we’re going to make ends meet at the hall if we can’t open,” she said. “Our streets are becoming vacant, more vacant buildings are getting graffitied and it’s just all so sad to watch.”
‘East San Jose must be a priority’
Rolando Bonilla, a San Jose planning commissioner and an East San Jose native, knows the debilitating loss COVID-19 can cause first-hand. Not only was Bonilla’s entire family infected by COVID-19 last month, but he spent six days in the hospital fighting to maintain his ability to breathe and he lost a close uncle to the fatal disease.
With a lot of time to think while lying in a hospital bed, Bonilla, a business consultant, said it became apparent that it was time for him to step up and create a support system for businesses in East San Jose that were unable to find aid elsewhere.
“We have businesses that have literally been on their own since we got the initial lockdown order on March 17 — businesses that don’t have access to federal aid or can’t access it due to language barriers or businesses that just don’t have the time to go through this archaic system,” Bonilla said. “We are in need of more help not only to sustain businesses but to save lives.”
In particular, Bonilla said he wants to make sure that business owners and employees do not have to make the “false choice” between going into work and becoming exposed to the virus or staying home and losing one’s livelihood.
So, partnering with the San Jose nonprofit Latinas Contra Cancer, Bonilla earlier this month launched the East San Jose COVID-19 Relief Fund with an initial $5,000 of seed money donated on behalf of his own company, Voler Strategic Advisors. In the funds first two weeks, Bonilla has raised about $20,000 toward his goal of $300,000.
Although the fund may not be able to help businesses that have already shuttered, Bonilla aims to provide some hope for the businesses still hanging on by a thread.
“The time has really come to financially support and lift up our small businesses and nonprofits in East San Jose, because they’re the heartbeat of the community and equally, they’re a major engine in terms of the economic growth and vibrancy for the City of San Jose,” Bonilla said.
“At this moment in history, East San Jose must be a priority.”
To donate to the fund, click here.