Just an hour before Tracy's City Council meeting, a mass of small business owners and supporters gathered for the Fight for Freedom at the Fountain protest in front of City Hall on Tuesday.
Amid the damp air and bouts of light sprinkles, residents were called upon in the night to respond to the new state restrictions on businesses that were told to shut down once again after San Joaquin County, along with most other counties in California, moved back to the "widespread" purple tier based on Gov. Gavin Newsom's Blueprint for a Safer Economy.
Coordinated by Heather Smiddy, owner of the downtown restaurant Chapter 2, demonstrators had one purpose for gathering: to demand change and support from their public administration and urge the City of Tracy to declare the town a "sanctuary city" for business operations.
"Our community did so much for me when life kind of fell apart, and I wouldn't have made it without you guys," said Smiddy in her opening remarks. "I felt like it was important that I did my part to be a leader and try to make a difference for the fellow business owners in town, and for the community people because the shutdown is purple tier. It's important for other reasons besides financial reasons."
Smiddy surveyed the crowd, asking people to raise their hands if their business, employment or overall livelihood had been affected since moving into purple the day before. She then invited speakers from other affected industries like places of worship, hospitality and fitness centers.
Public figures, including 2020 mayoral candidate Jass Sangha, city council elect Eleassia Davis and 2020 city council candidate Jaime Medina attended the protest in solidarity. Mayor Robert Rickman also made a brief appearance to meet and speak to protesters between closed and open sessions of Tracy's city council meeting.
Davis expressed her support for modeling after the city of Atwater, which declared itself a sanctuary city for churches and businesses after a unanimous approval by its city council in May, as long as it was done safely and responsibly. The caveat to this would be the potential for the state to withhold its funding for COVID-19 relief as long as a resolution like this was in effect.
"I'm here today in support of small and all businesses here in Tracy. Obviously, we are in unprecedented times. And so I'm here to answer to the call," said Davis. "I'm here to support small businesses and all local businesses in hopes that we can find a practical and responsible and safe solution to them remaining open indoors and outdoors."
Sangha, who owns Nirvaana Banquet and Event Center in Northgate Village and rents her space for $18,000 a month, spoke as a supportive resident and frustrated business owner.
"I am not at all suggesting that the virus is not here. I am not saying COVID doesn't exist," said Sangha to clarify her intent. "But does anybody understand what a small business goes through? We are not the millionaires and the billionaires people think we are. We are not a corporate world where we can make billions and we can get a tax write off.You're told to shut down the businesses. I understand that it's a safety concern. But what do the business owners do?"
Sangha gave an example through her own experience from when her business was ordered to shut down in March without any clear guidance on next steps.
"Of course I know I'm supposed to shut down. What am I supposed to do next?" Sangha said, saying that she tried to get direction from the city, county and state offices.
"The reason I do not qualify for any help is because I don't fall into the category of two things. First, I did not have a business in 2019. I do not have a tax return. Second, I'm not in the low income.You ask questions, they're like 'Oh, she's mean.' I'm not mean. I'm asking for a freaking answer from all the bureaucrats who can go have parties when they want to have parties. Enough is enough."
Some businesses have been continuing operation, despite COVID-19 restrictions, because of lack of better options, including TKO Fitness located downtown on Central Street.
"We're an essential business, OK? We're here for people's mental health. We're here for people's physical health. We're to be a sounding board for people's issues and problems," said owner of TKO, Tony Leanos. "All I know is that I'm not willing to just roll over and turn off my belt. I've invested my retirement, my 401k, my savings."
Although TKO remains open, Leanos does not downplay the seriousness of COVID-19 and acknowledged the effects it has had on families who have had loved ones die. Some precautions he has taken include mask requirements, temperature checks at the door, socially-distanced workout spaces and a designated outdoor area if needed. Despite all this, TKO fitness still has an over 50% loss in profit.
"I'm asking for all of your support. We can't continue to go down this road. It just doesn't make sense," he said. "I care about each and everyone in this city, in this state, in this country. But at some point, we need to call b-------."
In addition to inviting speakers from different industries that night, Smiddy also circulated a petition in support of declaring Tracy as a sanctuary city. She doesn't have a "magic number" of signatures that she hopes to collect, but she wants to have a sizeable amount before she presents the petition to city council at their next meeting.
Although she had an outdoor dining setup for the summer, with the added need for tents and heaters in the winter months she doesn't find acquiring these items financially feasible.
"It's not that I don't want to be compliant. I can't. There's nothing else to pull from. I'm barely making it, and I'm barely keeping my staff employed. And that right there is very important to me," she said. "I want to be here when this is all over, although I don't know that it's ever going to be over. I want to be lasting. I don't want to lose my staff, and I desperately don't want them to have to look for other employment. They're my family."
Smiddy has her petition available for those interested to view and sign at Chapter 2 restaurant.
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