Business, interrupted: Ontario merchants adapt as COVID changes everything

Christopher, a volunteer at Project DOVE’s Unique Boutique in downtown Ontario, squeegees the windows. The shop has a tentative reopening date of Monday, May 11, and will request that customers wear a mask. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

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ONTARIO – It was 12:25 on a Saturday afternoon in downtown Ontario and if you needed a parking spot, you had plenty of options.

The strip of South Oregon Street is dotted with everything from restaurants to pipe shops to retail stores. They’ve each taken a hit in different ways as COVID-19 brought the normally bustling area to a standstill.

Here’s what it looked like on a blissfully sunny 80-degree day around lunchtime.

If you started your walk at Ontario Mini Market, you’d think everything was business as usual. A steady stream of cars sidled up to the corner grocery store. Customers stepped in and out, past the neon pink handwritten sign advertising tamales and the other handwritten notes asking people to use the hand-washing station indoors.

But if you turned around and took the crosswalk – waiting until the car with a driver in a face mask made a left – you’d bump into a long row of empty parking spots on either side.

Through the glass windows, you could catch Coralee Nelson working at her business, Eastside Florist.

Nelson won’t open the door. A handwritten sign on her shop says the store is closed to walk-in customers, But on the phone through the glass she’ll tell you how the block has changed in just two months.

“There was a nice amount of traffic before all this,” Nelson said. Business has been up and down.

But she’s a glass half-full kind of person, she added.

“I still see people driving by that wave,” Nelson said. “It’s Ontario. They’re good people. Especially in the downtown area people really help each other out.”

Go next door and you’ll bump into Rylee Carrell, a manager at Romio’s Pizza and Pasta. Notice the empty parking spots in front of the restaurant and Carrell will confirm that on a normal Saturday at 12:30 she’d have six or seven tables seated. But today it’s 12:26 and she’s only had one order.

Across the street at Fiesta Guadalajara, the music played on, but manager Pepe Bovadilla looked across an empty restaurant. By the time lunch wrapped up, Bovadilla would count about 20 orders. A normal day would see 60 to 70.

“We started doing delivery to stay in business but this should be our rush hour right now,” Bovadilla said of the Saturday afternoon.

Jolts and Juice continues to serve customers by taking orders outside the coffee shop. Pictured: Barista Kelsi Marvin with customers Corinthia Mitchell, Tyler Wentz, Oscar Tamez and Brent Watkins. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Next door to Romio’s, the lights are on at Graphix Wear but the “open” sign is off. On the glass door, a typed note in English and Spanish tells customers the print shop is closed until further notice. The team is still working on orders and customers can set up a time for pick-ups.

Keep walking.

At the bar next door, an ATM light flashes green, and a sign written in marker states operating hours are seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 2:30 in the morning. But the door is locked and if you take a peek, behind the tank with the gurgling fish that offer the only signs of life, all the chairs and stools are piled up on the bar and tables.

Keep walking.

At the Dirty Dog Wash, the pet grooming business’ opening hours are neatly typed in red ink on a sheet of paper. Saturdays mean the shop is supposed to open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. But right next to that, a handwritten sign warns clients the place is closed due to Oregon orders for preventing COVID-19.

The Four Seasons Garden Supply next door is closed after new, temporary hours have left the store open from Tuesdays to Fridays.

Next door at Grant’s Shoes, sandals on clearance sit in the sun, and inside, a friendly face greets you. Grant Grigg himself.

Downtown has been a ghost town, he said, but “the last two weeks have picked up.”

He’d seen three customers that day. Grigg stayed open because he supplies shoes to a lot of Heinz Frozen Food Co. staff and employees from other plants who come in with vouchers for footwear.

“I stayed open with shortened hours in support of them,” Grigg said.

Grigg’s neighbor, Sport Card Center, is closed, but on the corner, a neon green sign reminds passersby that Smokin Dealz Pipe Shop is open.

Inside, owner David Navarrete shares that he’s been there for a year and that the area is usually “busy busy” but it’s been dead since restrictions took place.

His own business is faring well, with customers trickling in from Boise regularly. Navarrete worries about his neighbors who’ve had to close and is grateful that the state has deemed stores like his, which sells CBD products, “essential.”

“I stayed open for the medical part of it,” he said. His customers are happy to have access to products they consider medicinal and many have come in wearing masks and gloves. He put a perimeter of blue tape around his cases to maintain social distancing. 

Meanwhile, Alvarado Jewelers, the neighboring corner shop, is closed indefinitely, according to a typed note.

Next to Alvarado’s, at Old School Pipes, five customers peer at the shelves inside. By the “open” sign that clings to the door, a handwritten note urges customers to practice social distancing in the shop.

Up next is Antojitos Mundo Latino. A green sign written in marker tells customers that the restaurant is closed until further notice.

Go next door and meet Gloria Holland, owner of Holland’s Sew Shoppe Inc. There’s less traffic outside than the usual she’s seen in her 20 years of owning the shop, she said.

“Sometimes the streets have looked deserted,” Holland said.

The pandemic has affected her business but she still has a steady stream of customers. Now with so many people sewing cloth face masks, Holland is busy supplying them with elastic ties and servicing sewing machines. She keeps her own face mask nearby.

“Some ladies have sewn 100 masks,” Holland said.

Down the street from Holland, Oscar Tamez, a sales representative at Phones Plus, said business at the phone and computer repair store has remained steady.

“People need their phones so when they break, they’re coming to us,” Tamez said.

The streets have been pretty dead, he said, but things seem to be picking up.

“I know it’s not over yet,” Tamez said. “But when we open the door now we hear more activity.”

Tom Gentry, volunteer coordinator at Project DOVE’s Unique Boutique, papered the shop with popular handmade signs filled with encouragement and humor. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

A few doors down, a volunteer squeegees the windows at Unique Boutique, a thrift shop for the nonprofit Project Dove. The shop is closed, but the storefront has been a hit due to the handwritten signs that paper the windows.

“No more TP!” shouts one, “Are we there yet?” reads another. There are touching ones, too, like the “It’s not just you, we are all hurting” that spreads across six sheets of paper.

“I had a wild hair,” Tom Gentry, volunteer coordinator for the store, said with a laugh as an explanation for the signs.

Gentry thinks the humor helps. He’s gotten text messages from people who’ve driven by telling him how much they love the signs.

The shop closed down even before the governor’s order went into effect. Gentry didn’t want to take any chances as he cared for an ill father, but he’s upbeat as he plans the store’s soft opening, tentatively scheduled for May 11.

They’ve used the down time to remodel the interior. When they return, customers will be asked to wear a face covering inside.

“It’s going to be great when we finally get to reopen,” Gentry said.

A few doors down, Ashlee Garcia was upbeat, too, as she lugged a stereo speaker outside and placed it next to gold and purple star-shaped balloons in front of Aubree’s, her clothing and accessories store.

Garcia was celebrating. That day was her store’s one-year anniversary. Aubree’s, named after her daughter, has been closed except for curbside pickups every three weeks.

“I didn’t qualify for loans so we’re doing a huge curbside pickup from 1 to 5,” Garcia said.

She expected about 60 customers coming through to pick up orders that day. They’d leave with goodie bags that she had planned to give out at a big bash. That Saturday was supposed to be the Ontario Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual Chocolate and Wine Walk.

Garcia had been planning for months.

Ashlee Garcia with her daughter in front of Aubree’s, Garcia’s clothing and accessories store. The shop had its first-year anniversary last Saturday. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

“It was perfect that it was going to hit our anniversary,” Garcia said. “We’ve been excited for this for a couple months.”

Saturdays are usually thriving on the block, she said. But it’s been a ghost town. As a sole proprietor who had to close her business she’s been left without a daily income.

“We’ve been closed for over a month,” she said. The online sales and curbside pickups she’s done are “what’s helping us survive,” she said.

Garcia was upbeat as her daughter Aubree helped her prepare for customers 10 minutes before 1 p.m.

“We’re gonna have a great day,” Garcia had decided, and then she walked inside to collect her first customer’s order.

From Garcia’s speakers, a pop song blared: “This is my last hurrah, once I start I’m not gonna stop.”

Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377




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