Jose Pulido, owner of Cuates Western Wear, opens his shop located in the Fruitvale district in Oakland, CA. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Alameda County announced earlier this week that it’s accepting applications for CARES Act grants of up to $5,000 to support small businesses and self-employed individuals impacted by the pandemic. This latest installment of relief funding, which totals $5 million and was authorized by the Alameda County Board of Supervisors on Nov 10, comes after worsening COVID-19 infection rates moved Alameda County back into the purple tier, the most restrictive category that requires many indoor businesses to remain closed.

The grant program will bring needed relief to many small businesses in the county who’ve been struck financially by the pandemic. The grants can be used to cover certain expenses incurred between March 17 and December 30, 2020. The deadline to apply is November 30.

But some local business owners who spoke with The Oaklandside said they’re worried it could be too little, too late.

Jose Pulido, owner of Cuates Western Wear in the Fruitvale district, has received CARES Act funding in the past and is applying again. Pulido has run his retail store specializing in vaquero (Mexican cowboy) apparel—such as 10-gallon brimmed hats and stylish embroidered boots—for about seven years since he took over from the original owner, but he’s owned various other small businesses in the past. “This is what I’ve done my entire life,” he said.

Now, Pulido isn’t sure if he’ll be able to keep his store open for much longer. “Unfortunately it’s tough right now for my business because this western stuff sells more when you have a rodeo, or when you have a party. It’s a painful time because people don’t actually party anymore or go out.”

If Cuates Western Wear were to close indefinitely, Pulido’s source of income and ability to take care of his family would vanish. Although he wishes the government could provide more help, he’s grateful for any sum of money he receives. “Something is better than nothing—the past grant helped me to pay for my PG&E bills and other costs,” said Pulido. “We’re always going to do our best to keep the business open because this is my life.”

Like many other Fruitvale businesses, Pulido has received help from The Unity Council, a nonprofit community development organization, with filling out online grant applications. Itzel Diaz, The Unity Council’s senior manager of communications, told The Oaklandside that of the 300 businesses they serve, 70 were notified of the CARES Act opportunity because they qualified. “Based on what we hear from the business owners in the Fruitvale, they want to be hopeful but they are definitely struggling,” said Diaz. “Even if they do get that funding, there’s no telling how long the pandemic will continue.”

Fruitvale’s business owners, like other mom and pop shops throughout the city, have struggled with applying for relief opportunities online, according to Diaz. Rent negotiations with landlords and deciding how and whether to keep valued employees have also been big challenges. “Our mom and pop shops are really loyal to their employees and I see them struggling with, ‘Do I keep them on payroll because they’ve been with me for so long or do I keep the doors open?’” said Diaz.

The Unity Council has served as a liaison between the neighborhood’s property owners and small business tenants, and the organization has also partnered with The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area to spread the word about free lease negotiation webinars for small business owners.

Still, even with the county grants and community-based support offered through The Unity Council, Rosa Gonzalez said her small business—the famed Los Cocos Salvadoran Restaurant, also in Fruitvale—could be in its last days.

Prior to the pandemic, Gonzalez served up a steady stream of handmade pupusas and other Salvadoran delicacies like platanos fritos con casamiento (fried plantains with beans and rice) with the help of two employees. She’s had to let both go.

At the age of 64, Gonzalez said she’s exhausted running the business (which is currently open Tuesday through Sunday for takeout, from 12:30 to 6:00 p.m.) all by herself. “If I give up and take a break, I’ll have to close,” she said. “I’m not making any money. I’m only doing it now because we’re the only real Salvadoran restaurant around. You have to be in love with your country to do this work.”

Gonzalez said she’s received different grants in the past few months, but the money only lasts so long. “I’m hardly making my [home] rent and the rent of the business. Bills don’t stop, insurance doesn’t stop, PG&E doesn’t stop, so we have to keep going.”

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Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has spent the last two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the hyperlocal news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, joins us through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. Rodas will be reporting on small and immigrant-owned businesses in Oakland.