Winters Businesses Face Uncertainty Under State Restrictions

Photo by Edward Booth/Winters Express

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A crisp morning breeze whistles along the sidewalk of Main Street, autumn leaves swirl and land upon empty tables. There are abundant signs of the holiday season nearby: green wreaths with red bows, outdoor heaters, warm yellow lights hanging above a Christmas tree.

A few diners appear to be taking in the scenery while enjoying outdoor meals. But it’s the last day anyone will be able to eat outdoor meals on Main Street for at least several weeks. The day is Dec. 10, COVID-19 cases are continuing to rise throughout California, and the state’s stay-at-home order comes into effect that night.

Under the state’s order, restaurants are limited to take-out and delivery. Outdoor dining was allowed under a previous county order and in every tier of the state’s color-coded reopening system. But these new restrictions are more reminiscent of the initial stages of the pandemic in March and April, when most businesses shut their doors and state residents sheltered in place. 

Chris Turkovich, president of the Winters Downtown Business Association, said the state’s move to shut down outdoor dining comes as a blow to many Winters businesses. That blow is intensified because most of a $200,000 CARES Act grant the city received from Yolo County to help local businesses was used to build the outdoor dining area on Main Street. 

“It’s a struggle, I mean, it’s been a struggle all year,” Turkovich said. “But this is a definite big blow because for months we’ve been told outdoor dining and moving our businesses outdoors is the way to survive.” 

Turkovich said if local businesses or the city had been made aware months ago that shutting down outdoor dining was a possibility, it would’ve changed how the city spent the CARES Act funds. 

The city likely would’ve given more direct funding to local businesses to help them weather the next few months, he said. Though $40,000 went to a grant program meant to help businesses with rent and mortgages, most of the money went toward transforming the downtown business area. The shift to outdoor dining was an attempt to help Winters adapt to a business model that works in the era of COVID-19, to facilitate outdoor dining during the winter months, Turkovich said. 

Because of the way the CARES Act operates, the city needed to use the funds and install the dining by Dec. 30. The Main Street outdoor dining area isn’t finished yet — a substantial amount of money went to outfitting the area with pergolas and heating — but it’ll be finished soon, and it will sit, unused, for at least a few weeks. 

“It will be done and ready for use when we come out of the stay-at-home order, so there will be a benefit to us in a few weeks or a few months,” Turkovich said. “But it’s going to be a tough December, January and February for a lot of these businesses.”

Turkovich said shutting down outdoor dining represents a lack of leadership at the state and county level. He added that no one blamed the state for enacting strict restrictions in March because nobody knew how the pandemic worked then. Putting in place similar restrictions nine months later felt irresponsible, he said. 

Restaurant owners around the country are echoing a similar argument as Turkovich: that there is no concrete evidence that outdoor dining, when properly performed in accordance with health protocols, spreads COVID-19. 

Turkovich said he was also handling an instance of unclear direction from the state. He said people have been given the impression by governmental entities and media that breweries and wineries — such as his business, Turkovich Family Wines — are entirely closed. This isn’t true, he said, because wineries and breweries can stay open for retail and take-out. And now they have to bear the brunt of informing their customers that they’re still open. 

“Small businesses are used to adapting and dealing with it, so that’s what we’re doing, just digging in and trying to do the best we can,” Turkovich said. “It’s tough enough fighting coronavirus, it doesn’t help us when our supposed leaders are not leading correctly.”

Meika Ogando, owner of Winters Collective, said in an email that the store is able to remain open at 20 percent capacity. Because they don’t have an online store, Ogando wrote, the Collective depends on people to shop there in person. The Winters Collective is also allowing private shopping appointments. 

“It’s not ideal, but we are grateful to be able to stay open, otherwise we would not make it,” Ogando wrote. “We are working on an online store but until that launches, we depend on people to shop in our store.”

Gino Mediati, manager of Pacific Ace Hardware, said the store is fortunate not to be affected by many of the restrictions. Limiting occupancy to 20 percent isn’t a problem for the store, as typically many customers aren’t in the store at once, he said. 

Chuck Pearce, owner of Winters Pizza Factory, criticized the wide reach of the restrictions, saying he thought they should be determined by each individual city.

“They can tell us whatever we have to do,” Pearce said. “We can respect it, but me, personally, I just sit here and shake my head and I do what’s necessary to protect my customers and my employees. I just hope that everyone in our community gets through this and it doesn’t create any more hardship.”

Turkovich said that, unlike in March, there is a light at the end of the long pandemic tunnel that’s arriving now with various vaccines. The community will need to make sure the businesses are still surviving by then, he said, and hopefully restrictions will drop off and the Main Street outdoor dining area will be used again. 

“We’re looking at this time frame where it’s getting harder and harder but there does seem to be a finish line,” Turkovich said. 

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