Travel agent Aftab Yaqub has faced one of the nation’s worst economic crises just once before in his long career: in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Yaqub, the president of San Francisco, Bay Area-based 3S International Travel, is reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Even before Governor Gavin Newsom March 19 issued a statewide “shelter-in-place” order, effectively shutting down most businesses temporarily by ordering people to stay inside their homes, Yaqub found himself returning thousands of dollars to clients who had already bought tickets to India and Europe, but found themselves home-bound by travel restrictions. India has banned all travel from abroad, including travelers with OCI cards. The Trump administration has imposed severe restrictions on travel to the European Union and the United Kingdom.
Airlines are also filing for bankruptcy in the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Many are grounded, leaving their employees furloughed without pay.
Seventeen U.S. states and several counties have issued shelter-in-place orders for indeterminate periods, dealing a severe economic blow to small businesses, including those owned by Indian Americans.
A Goldman Sachs survey of 1,500 small business owners noted that more than half of small business owners said their company would continue to operate for a maximum of three months. Three-fourths of those surveyed said they had been hit hard by slow sales. Only 13 percent said they were confident about their ability to continue once the worst of the crisis is over.
Yaqub, who has been in business for 25 years, is thus unable to issue any tickets for travel. “My income is not only zero, it is hitting minus,” he said.
“I faced exactly this situation after 9/11. The loss was significant,” he told India-West, noting that many travel agencies simply shut down. Two months later, Emirates called, offering round-trip tickets to India for $300; Yaqub slowly built his business back up by selling cheaper tickets.
Sumita Batra, CEO of Ziba Beauty Salons in Southern California — which reportedly introduced the technique of threading in the U.S. — closed down 14 locations of the business on March 13. Batra took $200,000 out of her savings to hand-write severance checks to 140 employees.
“We are a touch services business. We had elevated sanitization procedures throughout our business, but realized nevertheless this was not the safest thing to do for our employees or our clients,” Batra told India-West, adding: “We serve thousands of clients per month.”
She has urged all beauty salons and spas to temporarily shut down. “Anyone going is bound to spread the virus,” she said, adding that she is also imploring her gurdwara to close. “This would be unprecedented. The gurdwara is where we go in times of crisis,” said Batra.
Batra and her mother are talking to their bank in an attempt to stop all non-essential payments. She believes it will take three to six months after the shelter-in-place order is lifted for her business to normalize and resume operations.
Her entire staff has had to file for unemployment. “My employees are labor class. They live paycheck to paycheck. Many of them are single moms,” said the Indian American businesswoman.
Despite the crisis, Batra said she feels very positive. “We’re not alone, even when we’re in solitary confinement. We’re going to spend some time with family, get to know our neighbors, cook more, and come back stronger,” she said.
Indian American restaurateur Ranjan Dey, of the New Delhi Restaurant in San Francisco, California was forced to lay off all of his employees, many of whom had worked at the restaurant for over 20 years. “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that this could happen,” Dey told India-West, adding: “My core staff are like family to me.”
Although restaurants are still allowed to offer take-out and delivery, Dey said his fine dining restaurant is unable to sustain itself on the two to three orders coming in per day. Suppliers coming in and out would also put his employees at risk of becoming infected, he said.
New Delhi restaurant, which opened in 1988, has been named a legacy business by the city of San Francisco. Dey has a long history of supporting the community through charitable events held at the restaurant, including the “Compassionate Chefs Cafe” program, which works with disadvantaged children.
Dey has set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise $17,000 to keep the restaurant afloat after the shelter-in-place order is lifted: https://bit.ly/3buGMMh. As of March 24, the campaign had raised more than $6,400.
“Every disaster has a seed of opportunity,” Dey told India-West, adding: “This is a defining moment for the community to come together.”
“People got married at my restaurant and I catered their weddings. Now I’m catering their children’s weddings,” he said with a laugh.
Mahesh Patel, owner of Fremont, California’s iconic Suju’s Cafe, told India-West his business has almost shut down. Suju’s two locations in Fremont serve and sell coffee from all over the world; it is one of the few independent businesses in Fremont.
Suju’s can still offer take-out coffee. But the majority of the cafes’ customers have traditionally whiled away their hours inside the cavernous sites, sipping on beverages while chatting with friends or poring over homework.
“Everyone’s scared to come in,” he said, adding he has had to lay off 80 percent of his staff. Rent and utility bills also have to be paid.
“I can survive for maybe one and a half months. If this goes on much longer, I’ll have to completely shut down,” he said.
India-West has also had to make the difficult decision to suspend its print publication (going digital instead), temporarily furloughing all of its staff, until the situation returns to normal. The 45-year-old newspaper has never in its history had to cease publication. “Even after the devastating  Loma Prieta earthquake, we had still returned to our offices, picked up the debris scattered all over our office, and went right on to send that week’s publication to press, albeit a day late,” said India-West publisher Ramesh Murarka in a statement to subscribers, adding that he was deeply saddened by this decision. “We will, however, continue to bring you all the relevant news and important announcements in a timely manner through our website (www.indiawest.com) and through our mobile apps, which will be updated on a daily basis and can be accessed around the clock,” the statement said, thanks to the efforts of a skeleton staff willing to work for free.
He noted that the printing press expressed doubts about remaining open and several readers began to express concerns about physically touching newspapers that had gone through several contacts during the pandemic.