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Retailers close in compliance with coronavirus order, leaving downtown nearly lifeless

by Ben OlivoMar 25, 2020
Commerce Street is nearly empty amid coronavirus on Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
Commerce Street is nearly empty Tuesday afternoon. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

After a gloomy weekend, the sky finally opened up Tuesday and the sun shone on a near-empty downtown. So few people walking around, so few businesses open in broad daylight at a time when downtown should be bustling with tourists, office workers and traffic during lunchtime on a Tuesday in March.

This was before the City of San Antonio and Bexar County's "stay home, stay safe" order took affect today—the latest measure by local officials to contain the spread of the coronavirus in San Antonio.

Some restaurants are selling meals to go, but most office workers now work from home and the tourist population has dwindled to an infinitesimal figure. Some hotels have closed, as has nearly every site and attraction.

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Many notable retailers were already closed when the week started such as Paris Hatters and the Alamo Antique Mall on Broadway. Most souvenir shops on the Alamo Plaza. And The Shops at Rivercenter.

The big question: For how long must they stay closed? The answer will determine whether the shops, many of which are mom-and-pop-owned, reopen when this passes.

On Tuesday afternoon, there were four to five customers at Herwick's art supply on Broadway, a legacy business that dates back to the late 1940s. Some were stocking up on vinyl for their shirt printing side businesses. One employee said artists had been coming in to stock up on supplies.

Owner Scott Rote said Herwick's will continue to take online orders, but still has to solve some logistical issues with the store closed for now.

"We're hoping to be back and running normally in two or more weeks, and we have enough savings built up that we can weather that time period," said Rote, whose family bought the store in 1972.

"We've cut a few hours as far as pay, but for the most part we're paying everybody, which takes a chunk out of some saved up money. But at least everybody's taken care of."


'This is the best thing"

Priscilla Camareno and Christian Coronado wait for customers inside Matador Men's Grooming on Commerce Street on Tuesday, March 24, 2020, the day before they were to shut down amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
Priscilla Camareno (left) and Christian Coronado wait for customers inside Matador Men's Grooming on Commerce Street on Tuesday. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Matador Men's Grooming on East Commerce Street has been receiving 1-2 customers a day of late, which is down from the normal steady flow of conventioneers, government workers and restaurant workers.

Christian Coronado, a barber who lives at the Maverick Apartments nearby, said she understands the "stay at home" order that came down from Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Judge Nelson Wolff on Monday. She's been cutting Nirenberg's hair for three years.

"I know talking to him personally, he really has been very calculated, compared to what I've heard in other places in other states," Coronado said. "I see him really trying to put things in in order and give the city direction. I think this the best thing.

"It sucks. And as much as I hate it, as much as we all hate it—because we need to make money—this is the best thing."

Manager Priscilla Camareno understands the need for the city to go into partial shutdown, but she also expressed frustration over the financial difficulties that lay ahead.

"A lot of us have kids and we worry about sacrificing having to pay bills and maintain our household," she said.

Camareno said police officers have been dropping in, assuring them they'd be ramping up their patrols during the shutdown in regards to potential vandalism. Many bars and some restaurants have boarded up their windows and entrances.

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Around the plaza

The LiberT gift shop and Smoke To Live vape shop
The LiberT gift shop and Smoke To Live vape shop are empty on Tuesday amid coronavirus. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Inside the conjoined LiberT gift shop and Smoke To Live vape shop, manager Jordan Studer has seen activity on Alamo Plaza grind to a halt the past week. On a normal weekend, the shops combine for $15,000 in sales. Last weekend, they made $500.

"It used to be, this was wall to wall people," Studer said, referring to the foot traffic outside the shops up and down Alamo Street. "You couldn't walk outside without bumping into somebody."

The parent company is called Smoke To Live, which is based in San Antonio. It fulfills online orders across the country, and has 18 locations around the city—brick-and-mortars, mall kiosks—and two gift shops on the plaza. On Tuesday, they were the few gift shops open. Today, they're all closed.

"Myself and the owner, we've opened our doors, we've opened our homes to the employees of ours who need groceries, supplies," Studer said. "We're trying to take care of our employees the best we can considering the situation."


'We're not locking up'

The Original Mexican Restaurant
The Original Mexican Restaurant is one of the few River Walk restaurants still taking to-go orders. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

The Original Mexican Restaurant, one of the very few kitchens that serves 24 hours downtown, has had to cut back its hours of operation. Of course, it's only doing to-go orders from its spot on the busiest stretch of the River Walk between North Presa and East Commerce streets. It's also now selling groceries such as milk, eggs, ground beef, chicken and toilet paper.

"We plan to be here until everything's over," Assistant General Manager Terry Landreth said. "We've been here 33 years. We're not locking up and going anywhere."

Landreth said the restaurant still sees tourists, though in fewer numbers.

"And locals," he said. "You've got people living in apartment (buildings). We're here for them. That's our main goal for the groceries, is to help people downtown. Plus our own employees."

Landreth said The Original, which opened in 1988 by River Walk restaurant godfather Bob Buchanan, had recently staffed up to more than 100 employees in anticipation of the peak season. As of Tuesday, he said he didn't know how many workers they'd have to let go.

"We haven't determined that yet; we are still in the process of doing that," he said.


'There's a lot of delusion'

Alta Vista Skateshop downtown San Antonio
Damien Sandoval opened Alta Vista Skateshop on Broadway in 2014. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Damien Sandoval, owner of Alta Vista Skateshop, saw sales start climb since January, the typical pattern as the weather starts to warm up. He was also looking forward to the summer, because skateboarding was going to make its Olympic debut at the summer games in Tokyo, which have been postponed due to coronavirus pandemic.

"The skate community was hoping we were going to get a big injection of popularity (with) people actually paying attention to what we are doing," said Sandoval, who had to lay off two employees recently. "In the past, (skateboarding's) really been demonized and has (had) this stigma of bad kids going around messing things up. That's really not the case."

Sandoval, who opened Alta Vista Skateshop on Broadway in 2014, said he's working to open an online store ASAP. That said, he's not optimistic the economy will simply pick up where it left off once the coronavirus is under control.

"There's a lot of delusion ... as soon as this goes through, oh we'll be fine," Sandoval said. "That's usually not the case. People have to start getting their confidence back into going out again and feeling like they're safe, and obviously to enjoy life in a particular way."

Sandoval said he can withstand the shutdown for the next two months, but "if it goes past April, there's probably very little chance we can keep alive."

Alamo Plaza is nearly empty on Tuesday amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron
Alamo Plaza is nearly empty on Tuesday amid coronavirus concerns. Photo by Ben Olivo | Heron

Contact Ben Olivo at 210-421-3932 | ben@saheron.com | @rbolivo on Twitter

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