Only a few short months ago, optimism in Mesa’s Asian District ran high with a major Korean supermarket chain showing off its long-awaited new store and Mesa unveiling a colorful marketing logo to market the area.
But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in mounting deaths, thousands of illnesses, stay-at-home orders, restaurant closures and steep declines in business that turned many shopping centers into near ghost towns.
It didn’t help when President Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 a “Chinese virus,’’ alluding to the killer virus’s origin in China. Asian-Americans nationwide felt the sting as some people turned them into scapegoats for an international pandemic not of their making.
“We were fielding calls non-stop from ignorant people blaming us for the virus,’’ said Vic Reid, executive director of the Asian Chamber of Commerce.
Now, the Asian District looks like perhaps one of the more obvious examples the city’s new Small Business Reemergence Plan’s importance as a potential lifesaver for family businesses on the brink of disappearing.
The plan aims to dole out about $18 million in grants from the federal CARES Act to tide small businesses over for about three months by paying basic expenses such as rent and utilities.
The desperate circumstances of many businesses make the program a test of whether Mesa merely wants to tout diversity or invest in it, some say.
“It seems like a lifetime ago’’ when the Asian community was excited about the planned opening of Arizona’s first H Mart supermarket at Dobson and Main streets and thousands flocked at the end of February to the Asian District Night Market, an international marketplace event, Reid said.
“I would say in our community, we have lost 80-90 percent of our businesses,’’ he said.
He said many of these businesses had only about one-months’ worth of capital remaining and minimal relationships with banks and other lending institutions, making it difficult for them to obtain federal Small Business Administration loans and other federal relief partially provided by the CARES Act.
“We just didn’t get funds. It’s unfortunate and disappointing,’’ Reid said.
He said Mesa’s Small Business Reemergence Program might represent these small businesses’ last hope.
There is one more week for businesses in Mesa to apply for grants at mesaaz.gov/CARESbizgrant.
Heather Wolf, Mesa’s library director, told City Council last week the Mesa CARES telephone bank has received 258 calls about the Small Business Reemergence Program since it launched on May 11.
She said the call center, which is staffed by librarians, received 276 applications and verified 50 percent of them so far, sending them to the Economic Development Department for evaluation.
The call center workers also called 213 applicants back after noticing that they had failed to submit all of the necessary documentation or that the forms were illegible. She said eight forms were received in Spanish.
“I am hoping they allocate a certain percentage to Asian businesses,’’ Reid said. “It’s the same thing with the Latino community. Most of them were operating on a month-to-month basis.’’
Although Mesa City Council member Jen Duff supported weighting the grant awards toward minority-owned businesses, her fellow council members strongly opposed that concept.
“I would like to suggest a weight on ethnicity, race and gender. I would like it on the application and for us to better support these microbusinesses,’’ Duff said.
Councilman Francisco Heredia also advocated for supporting small Asian and Latino businesses, noting that with the Asian District, “we worked so hard to get it going.’’
But council members Kevin Thompson and Jeremy Whittaker said they wanted the city to help all small businesses, regardless of race.
Assistant Economic Development Director Jaye O’Donnell, who is developing the business survival plan, said she expects “strong demand’’ from restaurants, with small Hispanic and Asian businesses fitting into the target profile.
“I don’t think it will go away,’’ O’Donnell said, referring to the Asian District. “I think the bones are so strong, that they will persevere, no matter what.’’
The city plans to have staff members available for technical assistance in filling out the forms in several languages, including Spanish, Chinese and Korean. Anyone in need of assistance in filing out and submitting forms is asked to call 480-644-CARE.
Mesa hopes to notify businesses in early June if their applications have been accepted and how much they will receive.
The program got off to a bumpy start when Ryan Winkle, a former Mesa City Council member and chairman of the Asian Chamber of Commerce, reported that the Spanish language application was not working last Monday and that it lacked a Spanish-version of instructions.
Councilman David Luna said he was informed the Spanish site was operating by Tuesday. A spokesman for the Economic Development office also said a Spanish version of instructions also would be added.
Luna said it was important to correct the technical blip as quickly as possible to avoid sending Latin and Asian businesses the wrong message, but in the end, everyone will have equal access to obtaining a grant.
“They will have equal access. They can always call,’’ Luna said. “It’s not first come, first served’’ because all applications will be considered as a group after the deadline.
Winkle said oversight is needed to assure that all applicants are treated fairly.
“I’m not looking for a preference. I’m just looking to make sure they know about it and are applying,’’ Winkle said.
He said the Asian chamber is sending out text messages in Asian languages to Asian-owned businesses with instructions about how to apply for the grants.
Mesa considers the East Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Asian Chamber of Commerce and Mesa Chamber of Commerce as partners in community outreach efforts.
To qualify, businesses must have a Mesa address, must not have received any other sort of federal aid and must have been impacted by the shutdown orders. The grants must be spent on rent and utilities for up to 90 days.
Steven Diep, property manager for Mekong Plaza and operations manager for Mekong Supermarket, said there’s little doubt the pandemic has devastated the district.
In Mekong Plaza, one of the best-known Asian landmarks in the district, only seven out of 28 businesses were open earlier this month, including six restaurants open for takeout only.
He said at the supermarket, which caters to Asian tastes, “business is still pretty good.’’
“Everything was going well’’ before the first case of coronavirus in Arizona was reported in January, Diep said. “Everybody stopped coming. They just stayed inside.’’
If anything, Asian senior citizens took the virus more seriously than other people when it was first reported because of their experience with other viruses, he said.
“The money needs to be distributed the right way,’’ Diep said. “The real businesses that are getting hurt are the moms and pops. They are the ones who need it the most.’’
Diep said he does not favor racial preferences and would prefer to see the state go slowly in allowing reopening businesses, despite the pandemic’s stunning impact on the Asian community.
Diep said he believes it is more important to avoid a second wave of illness and death than to rush a reopening because a sustained recovery in business depends upon restoring the public’s health and confidence.
Arizona Governor Doug Ducey lifted the Stay at Home order as of May 15, but he also ordered that social distancing health precautions remain in effect. Restaurants, hair salons, retail and health clubs are gradually reopening
In the meantime, Diep said Mekong Plaza is trying to be understanding with businesses that are hurting, reducing rents when necessary so they have a chance to survive.
“We are trying to be flexible with everyone,’’ he said.