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Tim Steller's opinion: Tucson’s favorite gathering spots would be most imperiled by long shutdown
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Tim Steller's opinion: Tucson’s favorite gathering spots would be most imperiled by long shutdown

From the April's Tucson-area coronavirus coverage: 1,200+ Pima County cases, stay-home order extended series

The economy hasn’t stopped. Manufacturers are still churning out products. Distributors are distributing them. Even some retailers are selling.

But the businesses we cherish and identify with, the ones that make this community a community — they’re closed.

The coffee shops and restaurants, bars and movie theaters, bowling alleys and gyms. The places we go when we’re not at work or at home. The places we hang out. They’re not just closed — many are endangered if the shutdown goes on too long.

It’s the cruel nature of the pandemic. The places we gather to enjoy each other and ourselves are the places that raise the risk of transmission by our sheer proximity.

Equally cruel: These also tend to be businesses that are small and locally owned, financially fragile by their nature.

“Anything that involves gathering together in groups, particularly larger groups, got hit hard and got hit first,” said University of Arizona economist George Hammond, director of the Eller College’s Economic and Business Research Center.

Places like Catalina Brewing Co., a bike-themed brewery near West Ina Road and Interstate 10, at 6918 N. Camino Martin. They’re selling beer on a take-out basis, but it’s not the same, said co-owner Brian Vance.

“The people that love coming here and miss being here are the ones who are coming in and getting beer,” he said. “They get their beer, with the little X’s on the floor 6 feet apart. Our regulars are in once a week, but it’s not enough.”

He’s paid some bills with personal money and got the OK not to make payments for a few months to credit card companies and on a Small Business Administration loan.

“We’re a month in, and we’re OK, but if it’s two months it’ll be more challenging,” Vance said.

What made the timing especially bitter for Vance and his partners was that the business had just made it through two difficult years when the Ina Road exit at I-10 was closed.

“We were finally paying the bills and feeling like we were on track, and then this happened,” he said.

One of the risks for places like Catalina Brewing is that owners are on the line personally for loans.They could lose their homes or other possessions if a lender is unforgiving. In that case, there’s little hope for these cherished haunts to come back.

“They’ve attached their own wealth and living situation to these businesses,” said Ray Flores, president of Flores Concepts, which owns the El Charro restaurants. “They could lose their income and their home at the same time.”

The owners of an arcade just off North Fourth Avenue, D&D Pinball, announced Friday they are closing, in large part to avoid digging themselves into a deeper financial hole.

Over the short term, the outlook is not great for these gathering places. On Thursday, the White House issued guidelines for how and when the states should allow closed businesses to re-open. State governments aren’t obligated to follow the guidelines, but they’re likely to be used as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey considers relaxing restrictions.

The first criteria are that flu-like illnesses and COVID-19-like syndromes be on a downward trajectory for a 14-day period; that documented COVID cases be headed downward over a 14-day period; that hospitals be able to treat all patients without crisis care; and that a robust testing program be in place for at-risk health-care workers.

Only when all that happens does the White House recommend proceeding to reopening some closed businesses. Restaurants and gyms, the guidance says, should only be able to open under distancing guidelines that keep people far enough apart. Bars should remain closed. After that, when states achieve the first criteria a second time without a rebound in cases, the guidance recommends moving on to a second stage, one in which bars should be allowed to open.

It’s going to be a tough time for these gathering places, the UA’s Hammond said as he pored over worrisome economic models. Not only were they the first businesses to be hit by closures, but they will also be hurt by decreased spending as the shock reverberates through the economy. The UA, for example, announced big pay cuts and furloughs that will take effect over the next year.

“Those sectors that rely on close social interaction — restaurants, movie theaters, travel — get hit hard by social distancing. Then they get hit again,” Hammond said.

Over at another bike-themed business, on the northeast side, Le Buzz Caffe is still serving to-go coffee to the ride-up crowd, supervisor Kyle Lux said. But it’s not enough to sustain the normally busy spot at 9121 E. Tanque Verde Road.

“A lot of people want to sit down, have a cup of coffee, open their laptop and hang out for an hour,” Lux said. “Until we open up fully, we can’t expect that kind of business to return.”

While others are doing take-away business, Elizabeth Menke, the owner of Saint Charles Tavern in South Tucson, has shut the doors tight.

“It’s not quite worth it,” she said, to try to carry on some piece of the business. Instead, she said, she’s “waiting it out, doing small projects over time, and hoping that all the small businesses make it out of this.”

But some of the connections that people usually make over a beer at the bar are still happening, she said.

“Our whole team is in conversation with all of our regulars, in a spider web of communication, checking in with each other,” she said.

Moral support and take-out orders — that’s pretty much what we can do till we can gather again at the businesses that make Tucson our home.

Contact: tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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