Business leaders at webinar see preparation and reinvention as keys to surviving the pandemic

Businesses in San Diego are looking to reopen in coming weeks.

As the state continues to release guidelines in a phased plan for reopening businesses shuttered or severely restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic, San Diego City Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry presented a small-business webinar with representatives of various local business communities.

Panelists at the April 29 event included Hispanic Chamber of E-Commerce President and Chief Executive Tayde Aburto, San Diego Black Chamber of Commerce President Donna DeBerry, Better APC managing partner Sam Mazzeo, and Vilavanh Sanginthirath, founder and CEO of Innovations City and board member for Business for Good San Diego.

While some of the business leaders suggested they were waiting for instructions from the top, they also discussed how local entities are picking up the slack to support businesses as they seek to reopen.

When it comes to developing practices for businesses to protect themselves and their customers so they can safely resume operations, “we are taking a bit of a backseat from what comes down from state and federal governments and doing what we can,” Mazzeo said of his San Diego law practice. “We are one of the businesses that would welcome some guidance and rubrics and a manual as far as what it will look like when we go back to the office.”

It may be some time before locations such as offices, restaurants, shopping malls and museums can start returning to normal as the state progresses through the second phase of its reopening plan.

DeBerry called this time “the wild, wild West” but noted that the Black Chamber of Commerce was “preparing, especially our restaurant owners, for whether there will be modifications at the establishment, how you are going to finance those modifications if necessary, what are you going to be thinking about as far as protecting your employees as well as your customers, what kind of PPE [personal protective equipment] are you going to need, are you going to require your customers to wear face coverings? We’re preparing our members to start thinking about these ideas as they are looking to reopen.”

Aburto said he would handle business advisement on a case-by-case basis.

At Business for Good San Diego, a small-business public policy group, “we’ve done a survey of all our members and tried to identify types of areas of support needed,” Sanginthirath said. “The low-hanging fruit in terms of being able to support small business is word of mouth, which is the best marketing we can do. It’s undefeated to this day.”

When asked whether there would be local resources to fill in where federal and state governments leave off, DeBerry and Aburto said it is crucial that local governments work with business owners.

DeBerry, who is on the mayor’s San Diego Economic Recovery Advisory Group, said: “The city and the county are collaborating on the reopening and gave us questions to survey our business community to find out what the businesses need to reopen. Even though there are state mandates, the local municipalities are going to have a say in how they open and how we fund them.”

Aburto added that the San Diego region is “very unique with the lateral business we have with Tijuana and Baja California, and this is something those in Washington do not understand. So knowledge the city has and state has is going to be important in finding solutions for this region.”

Each speaker shared advice for businesses on how to not only survive but thrive during this challenging time.

“As unprecedented as this time is for everyone, I feel there is great opportunity … in terms of getting creative with our businesses,” Sanginthirath said. “I’ve seen people get all-hands-on-deck to help organizations [and encourage] consumers to buy local. Posting things on Facebook, going on Yelp, anything you can do to help your neighbors and their small businesses.”

Mazzeo said: “I know business owners that are going on the offensive right now. Take this time and try to figure out what you can do to get creative … and educate yourself and get ready for that next phase.”

DeBerry and Aburto emphasized the importance of reinvention.

“Entrepreneurs are not just early adopters but they are certainly early adapters,” DeBerry said. “This is a time like no other time in history to reinvent yourself. Think of everything you wanted to do and couldn’t get done — this is the time. … Even though this has upended your business and it is not business as usual, retailers are coming up with ways to respect social distancing and sheltering in place to keep their employees safe while still serving their customers. Think of ways to reinvent yourself and do it.”

Aburto said: “Reinventing ourselves and digital transformation are the keys to success now. A lot of businesses put [a digital presence] on the side because they were in their comfort zone … but this is the time to assess your current business model and incorporate digital into it.

“We have the opportunity to address or sell to markets outside San Diego because more people feel comfortable buying online. E-commerce is going to go through the roof as a result of this, and it is going to keep growing. We need to ask ourselves if we want a piece of that pie. And stay positive.”

Bry plans more webinars on varying topics, and announcements can be found at