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Firebaugh Manages To Keep COVID-19 Cases Low But Businesses Are Struggling

Madi Bolanos
Don Pepe restuarant owner Juan Miguel says he's not sure what will happen to his 20 year-old family business as the state forces him to close down in door dining for the second time.

Not every small town in the Valley has a COVID-19 code enforcement officer, but Firebaugh does. His name is Sef Gonzalez and on this Tuesday, he’s dropping by restaurants downtown to remind them of the new rules issued by Governor Gavin Newsom.

At a Mexican restaurant, Don Pepe, Gonzalez tells the owner Juan Miguel indoor dining must stop by 3 p.m.

This week Newsom announced California was pulling the emergency break on its reopening plan due to the state’s rising COVID-19 numbers. Most counties are now in the most restrictive purple tier which means restaurants can no longer serve food indoors.

Gonzalez knows this will create hardship for Miguel so he tries to soften the blow.

“But I’m going to talk to the city council and see if we can get you some heaters for outside dining,” Gonzalez says. Miguel tells him that sounds good.

Back outside on main street, Gonzalez, who works for the Firebaugh Police Department, says he wants to make sure businesses operate safely.
“Just going into the business, seeing everyone wear masks,” Gonzalez says. “I have a good rapport with the business owners and employees. It’s one of the things I try to keep on top of.” 

He says it’s the city’s goal to keep residents and business owners up-to-date on how to mitigate the spread of the virus. And the data shows it’s paid off.

“When I first started in Fresno County we were the third highest. Now we are one of the lowest,” Gonzalez says.

In April, the town with just over 8,000 residents went from zero to 15 cases in a matter of days. That's when city officials came together to create a game plan for how they would reduce the case numbers.

“We started coming up with protocols,” Gonzalez says. “Okay these are the protocols we are going to have our residents follow and not just our residents but people that are visiting.”

Gonzalez says the city has provided business owners with PPE for customers, signs to hang outside that outline COVID safety guidelines and “if they were only Spanish speaking I would read the whole thing to them and hand them the paperwork and give them a business card.”

He says he wants people in the town to feel like they are all in this together.

Juan Miguel, the owner of Don Pepe, says that part is true but there’s a much bigger problem than just acquiring PPE.

“They’ve given us masks and hand sanitizers yes, but that doesn't help much,” he says. “They can have a big round of applause for that sure but what we need is money.”

Miguel says his 20-year-old business is tanking and it’s causing fights between him and his family who are struggling to decide whether it’s worth it to keep the restaurant running.

“Of the businesses affected by the pandemic, I think the restaurants have been hit the hardest because we depend on people,” he says.  

Before Newsom’s recent order the restaurant was able to open at 30% capacity, but even then, Miguel says they were hardly getting any customers.

“Out of that only 10% would come in and the rest don’t come at all because they are scared of catching the virus,” he says. 

The winter months have always been tough on local businesses, says Miguel. It's an off season for farm workers so they aren’t spending as much. And now that he can’t serve anyone indoors, Miguel says it’s going to be even harder.

A few blocks away at Firebaugh Restaurant, owner Juan Portillo agrees. 

“The field workers have stopped,” Portillo says. “Now they're just collecting unemployment but with just that, they don’t have money to go eat at a restaurant, just to pay the bills.” 

Outside, Veronica Mendoza, a migrant worker and single mother to three kids, says that’s true. There’s no work right now and she only has money for rent and groceries, she says. Plus she’s concerned about her daughter, who suffers from seizures. She won't risk taking her anywhere that might increase her chance of catching COVID.

“It’s very difficult for me to take her out. If I do, she's wearing gloves and a mask and it’s usually in the parks,” Mendoza says.

Sef Gonzalez, the code enforcement officer, says he encourages residents and businesses to do what they can to keep themselves safe. But when he has to share bad news, like telling restaurant owners to close indoor dining, it’s really tough.
“Right now the big giants like Target and them are still able to bring in their money but it’s really affecting these smaller places,” he says.  

And he worries, with the recent surge in the state, being the bearer of bad news will only get worse.

Madi Bolanos covered immigration and underserved communities for KVPR from 2020-2022. Before joining the station, she interned for POLITCO in Washington D.C. where she reported on US trade and agriculture as well as indigenous women’s issues during the Canadian election. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a minor in anthropology from San Francisco State University. Madi spent a semester studying at the Danish Media and Journalism School where she covered EU policies in Brussels and alleged police brutality at the Croatian-Serbian border.
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