Big Sky Cafe. Photo by Joe Johnston 11-18-08

Since the first stay at home order was placed in March of 2020, downtown San Luis Obispo  businesses haven’t been the same. Many went through exceptionally rough patches and others shut their doors for good. 

“Businesses are having challenging times,” said Lee Johnson, the San Luis Obispo Interim Economic Development Manager. “Even the ones that are doing relatively well still probably aren’t doing as well as they would normally.” 

Local favorite Big Sky Cafe is one of these businesses. During the first shutdown, owner Greg Holt struggled to make ends meet without the usual flow of customers. He laid off all but six of his 50 employees back at the start of the pandemic. Holt said that they just had to learn to be flexible and adapt to the situation.

“We had amazing support from the community,” Holt said. “The city took amazing care of us, the county took amazing care of us.” 

The county hired Big Sky Cafe multiple times to cater about 250 lunches for employees at its Emergency Center, and that really helped them stay afloat during the initial shutdown. 

Even after the first stay-at-home order was lifted, things were still tough for the restaurant as they didn’t have outdoor seating. However, the city installed a paraklet outside the restaurant that allowed customers to dine outdoors rather than just pick up food to go. 

“I’ll be the first one to say that the parklets from the city saved Big Sky Cafe, there’s no question in that,” Holt said. “That gave us the capability to serve enough customers to pay the electricity and the rent.” 

The government’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan was also a huge factor in the restaurant’s ability to stay open. The PPP is a Small Business Association-backed loan that helps businesses keep their workforce employed during COVID-19. When Big Sky received the PPP loan, Holt was able to hire back everyone who was willing to work. According to The San Luis Obispo Tribune, 700 businesses in San Luis Obispo County received at least $217 million from the PPP. 

Further, in order to aid businesses in distress like Big Sky, and the local economy in general, the city implemented new programs and gave money in the form of grants.

 According to the “City Actions to Support Our Local Economy,” document that can be found on the city’s website, the city has:

  • given $250,000 in grants directly to 52 small local businesses
  • deferred city business license renewal
  • suspended industrial user permit fees
  • Deferred City Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), County Property Tax, and State Sales Tax 
  • Provided curbside pickup spots and free parking downtown
  • Created takeout and delivery maps for local restaurants
  • And much more! 

Reopening Timeline

Now that the city is in the red tier, businesses that were previously restricted from operating indoors, like restaurants, are now allowed to serve patrons indoors at limited capacity. 

“Now we’re gearing back up and it’s such a joy for me to refill someone’s coffee cup sitting inside my restaurant,” Holt said. “We don’t know what this new normal will be but just seeing the vibrancy of San Luis Obispo come back is what I’m most looking forward to.”

According to Downtown SLO, a nonprofit made up of fee-paying downtown businesses, the timeline for further re-opening businesses is set by the State’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy.  

“We learn about tier changes based on State/County updates, so unfortunately we don’t have any news to share at this time,” said a representative for Downtown SLO.

According to the California Department of Public Health, the Blueprint for a Safer Economy is meant to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in California. Each tier is based on each county’s test positivity and adjusted case rate. San Luis Obispo county is not currently under a stay-at-home order, but it is in the red tier. 

In order for San Luis Obispo County to advance to the next, less restrictive tier, it will need to meet an equity metric or demonstrate targeted investments to eliminate disparities in levels of COVID-19 transmission. Because the county is currently in the red tier, its test positivity rate is between 5 and 8%, which is the percentage of all coronavirus tests performed that show someone has COVID-19. To move to the next tier, the orange tier, the county’s test positivity rate has to be between 2 and 4.9%. 

For more up-to-date information about COVID-19 in San Luis Obispo you can visit the city’s website

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