Photo by Photograph By Matthew Suárez
Chris Sawaya (right) believes the coronavirus may have already “blown through” his office. He and his brother Steve (left) are ready for life to go on.
Sawaya Carpet Care has been in business for 29 years. Recently, owner Steve Sawaya (pronounced Sa-why-a) approached the owner of “a fancy restaurant in La Jolla” about getting paid for a job he’d completed. “Before the bill could be processed,” he tells me, “they shut down. ‘We’re sorry, Steve,’ the owners told me, ‘you ain’t gettin’ paid. We don’t even know if we’re going to be in business in a month.’ So they’re gone.”
Photograph By Matthew Suárez
Others were going, too. “I should be doing the Model Railroad Museum in Balboa Park next week,” says Sawaya, “but they’re closed.” He’s been cleaning 40 units of an AirBnb and property development company in central San Diego off and on, and they stiffed him on work he’s already done. “But the owner had me clean his carpet at home for $150,” he says. “It was the first money I’d made in over a week. It will have to pay the phone bill.”
Sawaya speaks to me fast and intensely and, seemingly, with great anxiety. Fortunately, he has received his tax refund and expects a government stimulus check soon. “But I have to pay for my vehicle and business insurance and have a place to live. Somebody told me not to pay my rent. But my landlord’s got taxes and a mortgage to pay, and he and I have a great relationship.”
Sawaya has already paid $8400 in tuition for his two boys’ education in Catholic school. But his parish priest wants more. “With no congregation at Mass on Sundays, the hat isn’t being passed, and the church needs money, too. But I said, ‘Father, you’re at the bottom of the list.’
“The Swap Meet and the Giant Used Car Tent Sale are shut down. People have no savings left and can’t afford to buy anything. For a while, I was paying $4 for a bean and cheese burritos at my favorite taco shop on University Avenue. Now I eat mac and cheese to save even more money. All the while the taco shop needs my money.”
Nick Kacha, whose family own Rudford’s Restaurant, questions the necessity of the government forcing him to restrict his business from being open in full. “It strikes me that they’re dabbling in martial law right now. The initial estimated numbers of Covid-19 hospitalizations and deaths were ‘skewed.’”
Photograph By Matthew Suárez
The picture Sawaya paints is an exact reversal of the way in which, during flush times, money flows through all sorts of networks of sellers and buyers. Now those networks are being sucked dry. “People have no idea how bad this is,” Sawaya tells me. “It’s way more far reaching than even smart people seem to realize. The guy who digs a ditch knows how the world works better than one coming out of college. The world is in his face every day.
“We need to work! Nobody wants people to die, but get realistic here. We didn’t want people to die in World War II either, and we knew they would, but at some point you’ve got to man up and do what we’ve got to do. Go out and kill the mammoth. We can’t just hide in the cave all the time. We might get our guts stomped out, but go out and attack the mammoth.
“Wait until people start killing people. We won’t have a country in a month if people don’t go back to work.”
Why should bars open full bore again? “Simple,” says Frank Burton. “People like to drink.”
Photograph By Matthew Suárez
When orders came down from Sacramento on March 16 for citizens to stay in their homes until the end of the month, Chris Sawaya, Steve’s brother, thought it was a good idea. It’s his understanding that the purpose of the lockdown was “to slow things down” and assess where we stood. Then officials changed the target, he tells me. The new goal? To eliminate the coronavirus. “We went from managing the pandemic to wiping it out,” says Chris. “Now that’s not going to happen, and meanwhile, life must go on.”
As evidence for this “common sense,” Chris cites the growing awareness that eventually dawned on researchers: that many more people than those who show symptoms are infected with the coronavirus. This means that the risk of getting sick is less than first estimated, and medical professionals have admitted as much.
There is also a conviction among researchers that the virus has been present in communities across the world, including San Diego County, far longer than first thought. In fact, Chris believes it may have already “blown through” his office.
Rudford’s, known as a 24-hour diner, is filling take-home orders all night.
Photograph By Matthew Suárez
Chris Sawaya is the owner of Sully-Jones Roofing Company in El Cajon. “What we do is firmly in the ‘essential workers’ category, because the integrity of commercial buildings must be maintained. After the rains, we got a lot of business. So, unlike my brother, who is flat broke, our company is doing well.”
Twenty of the Sully-Jones employees work in “the field” and 10 in a small office. I visited Chris and, during my stay, I noticed a confidence that the office was a safe place. I soon discovered its source.
Chris tells me that in mid-January, he and several of the others came down with what they figured was a severe flu, the worst he’d ever experienced. One Monday about noon he “knew something was going on,” so he went home and stayed in bed until Thursday. The symptoms he describes having were chills, “a jackhammering fever” and abnormally intense joint pains, but only a mild cough, “like a tickle.” He was able to work the following week, but then felt very weak for several more days.
Chris’s wife and every one of his eight children came down with the illness and described symptoms similar to his, growing in intensity the older they were. And by the end of January, every worker in his office had become ill.
“In February, as we began paying attention to news coming from across the world,” says Chris, “the possibility occurred to us that we had gotten the coronavirus too. The symptoms sounded so familiar. And now we wonder: have we acquired an immunity? Are we part of a developing ‘herd immunity’ locally? I would love to get the antibody test.”
Chris does not make light of a COVID-19 diagnosis. Some people are in danger, he readily admits, so protect them. “Always in human history, the strong have taken care of the weak while taking care of their families at the same time. Life goes on, so we’ve got to get back to work. The blue collar world has more common sense about this than policy makers.”
Rudford’s Restaurant in North Park opened in 1949. One night early in its history, the story goes, the key to lock the door couldn’t be found come closing time. So they decided to stay open all night. The iconic establishment has been a 24-hour diner ever since.
Nick Kacha, 29, whose father Jeff bought Rudford’s in 1994, tells me that when he was required to offer to-go service only, he decided to retain the overnight tradition. “People closing down bars and others know us for that,” he says. “And we were already filling lots of take-home orders, so that made the transition a little easier for us than probably for most other restaurants. Also, on the day before the authorities informed us, I learned that Los Angeles decided to do it, so I knew it was coming our way.”
He then laid off all but 10 of his 42 employees, and that gave them a jump on applying for unemployment, he says. Then Kacha, his father, and his girlfriend Adriana Ferreyra took themselves off the payroll. Along with longtime employee Jordan Peterson, they are now doing most of the work needed to keep the restaurant up and running.
One of the first shocks the business had to endure was a hike in the wholesale price of eggs. They had been used to paying $180 per pallet; it went up to $360. “When the supplier came and showed me a $500 bill, I sent him away. I went right down to Restaurant Depot and got a price of $240 per pallet. Still high, but I did cut the hike in half. Meat also went way up. And home delivery services like Doordash are now taking a 25 percent charge from customers’ bills.”
Kacha questions the necessity of the government’s decision to force him to restrict his business from being open in full. “It strikes me that they’re dabbling in martial law right now. The initial estimated numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths were ‘skewed.’ It was wrong of the media to run with the scare about a pandemic, especially in giving an impression that California’s and San Diego’s situation is comparable to Italy’s and New York’s. Even after things return to ‘normal,’ it will take time for people to trust and feel safe in the restaurant. There have been waves in take-out so far. At first, business was good, then came a huge drop. A few people come in every day now. They have nowhere else to go.”
I ask Kacha what he thinks of the likelihood that the economy will open up soon. He doesn’t believe it will open up much until at least June, although it might start slowly with businesses that can offer heightened protections. He thinks Rudford’s could open now, using disposable wipes on tables and limiting the number of people who can be inside at one time.
“We could put people in every other booth,” says Kacha. As he and I look at the empty booths now, It’s clear that a good 10 feet of separation could be gained that way.
Why should bars open full bore again? “Simple,” says Frank Burton. “People like to drink.” It’s a thought that, almost 90 years after the repeal of Prohibition, still mortifies some. But he is right. Alcohol sales are a huge contributor to the national economy.
Burton is the owner of Cricket's Cocktails on El Cajon Boulevard, a little over two blocks east of I-805. Currently, he is allowed to sell beer, wine, and hard liquor to-go in plastic cups, but only if accompanied by a food purchase. He offers a modest menu of standard breakfasts, sandwiches, steaks, and chicken. For years, Cricket's has had a gentleman’s agreement with Venice Pizza next door to stick primarily to alcohol and not compete heavily in food.
Through limited take-home traffic, Burton is hanging on and counting on being open soon. He thinks that might be in May, because if things continue the way they’ve been going, he will be losing about $30,000 in business per month. “I heard through the grapevine that hotels, restaurants, and bars will be the first businesses to open,” he says. But, for bars at least, that is probably optimistic due to the reputation for crowded, backslapping atmospheres that some bars have.
“I’ve been telling drunks that they have to leave for 34 years,” says Burton, who first owned Sparky’s (now Hamilton’s) in South Park for 15 years and then, with a trip to Las Vegas in between, Cricket's for 19. “That’s the same thing I and my bartenders would do to a customer who’s throwing an arm around somebody’s neck and getting in their face. I think I have seen it all. But I suppose there is always something new to learn, of course, and the coronavirus certainly seems to be that.
“People would have to wear masks and practice social distancing inside. I’d want a bouncer to work the door. I don’t want people to get sick and die.”