The TV station Univision plays in the background at Las Morenitas, a small Salvadorian restaurant on Mendota's main street. Maria Morena has owned the place with her husband, Francisco, for 12 years. After frying pupusas for a few lunch customers, she takes a quick break to talk about the business.
“We aren’t making any profits,” Morena says. “We’re just paying the bills and well, we have no employees except for the family that has stepped up to help us out.”
In this small farming town, Latinx owned small businesses have struggled to stay afloat in the pandemic. Maria and Francisco’s three adult children all pitch in with the day to day operations at the restaurant.
Morena says it’s been a struggle but at least it’s better than it was at the beginning of the pandemic.
“There were three months that we were only doing take-out, March, April, May,” she says. “And of course that meant we were making far less than we would have if we were able to open fully.”
In June, one of her children went online and applied for a small business loan grant.
“They are still telling us that they will let us know but we have not heard from them,” Morena says. “They said it would take three to six months but here we are still waiting.”
Still waiting with their savings already emptied. And even after opening the restaurant with some restrictions due to COVID-19, Morena says she’s uncertain about the future of Las Morenitas.
“We opened but if they say there are more cases, then we have to close again, so we are nervously waiting it out,” she says, adding that she still hopes to get a loan.
Yvette Salas with Camino Financial, an online small business lender, says Morena’s situation isn’t unique. Camino Financial released a survey in October that showed many Latinx owned businesses struggled to receive government aid.
And “because of lack of securing funds, relief funds, during the pandemic, a lot of these small businesses had to go into their reserve funds and carry over those losses,” Salas says.
The survey found many Latinx small business owners were hesitant to reach out to organizations like the Better Business Bureau or a bank.
“They’re not plugged into mainstream financing,” says Salas. “A lot of times they don’t have a relationship to their bank.”
Salas says participants in the survey also attributed language and documentation status as barriers.
But at another Salvadorian restaurant in Mendota called Antojitos Guanacos, the owner was able to take out a loan. Miguel Urias says he had depleted his savings trying to keep his restaurant going when he saw an ad on TV from the Better Business Bureau offering small business loans.
“I was already three months late on the restaurant's PG&E bill so at the very least that helped pay that off so I could continue working,” Urias says.
The family has owned the restaurant for 20 years and Urias says the pandemic has been catastrophic for his business.
“At the beginning of the pandemic I closed the restaurant for two weeks and I was thinking of closing completely because we weren’t making anything,” he says. “We didn’t have any money to pay the bills.”
He says being able to open at 25% capacity has helped but now it’s down to him and one other employee running the restaurant.
“One employee left because she didn’t want to work for just two hours and run the risk of catching COVID,” he says.
And that’s another challenge these restaurants face, keeping customers and employees safe from the virus. At Las Morenitas, Morena says they try to follow the CDC guidelines as best they can.
“In the kitchen we wear masks and the customers are in charge of protecting themselves and others with a mask,” she says.
But some customers refuse to wear them. Like 52-year-old Juan Ruiz, who’s a regular at Las Morenitas. He’s sitting at a table drinking a beer while waiting for his food. When he finishes his meal, he won’t put on a mask.
“For me, that doesn’t help at all, at all. As humans we all have rights,” Ruiz says.
He says his sister contracted COVID earlier this year even though she wore a mask. And in spite of the fact that public health experts say masks do reduce the spread of the virus, Ruiz thinks the government should suspend their use.
“Nothing is going to happen,” he says. “As humans we’ve engrained it in our minds that if we don’t wear the mask we are going to get sick. No no no no.”
Morena says she asks her customers to follow safe practices. And for those who feel safer eating outside, Morena has also created an outdoor sitting area.