Photo by Haley Ausbun
                                Boon Boona Coffee in downtown Renton is well-known for its large cafe space, but owner Efrem Fesaha has found a creative way to keep people to to-go orders only, putting a table right at the door. The order from the Governor hasn’t been easy for small businesses in Renton, and many are just taking it day to day and hoping for financial relief from local and regional leaders.

Photo by Haley Ausbun Boon Boona Coffee in downtown Renton is well-known for its large cafe space, but owner Efrem Fesaha has found a creative way to keep people to to-go orders only, putting a table right at the door. The order from the Governor hasn’t been easy for small businesses in Renton, and many are just taking it day to day and hoping for financial relief from local and regional leaders.

Renton communities reach out during shut-in

Local organizations, volunteers and businesses try to make the best of quarantine

Jenessa Pettit, a Newcastle resident, is the owner of the Mighty Mug Coffee drive-thrus in Renton, Tukwila and Kent. She knew from starting her small business during the last recession that it’s good to have a backup financial support, so she put herself through nursing school to keep herself and her employees afloat.

“I saw a lot of people go out of business, not able to pay their taxes, and it just kind of scared me,” Pettit said.

She’s finding it very useful now as businesses all over are being hurt by the economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, keeping herself, as she said, “recession proof.” Pettit, who lives on border of Renton, in Newcastle, also thought nursing would let her help people on a larger scale, so she’s been keeping herself available for contracts.

Now she’s feeling the blow of coronavirus at both jobs. When the outbreak started, she took a contract as a nurse at the most-hit location in the United States from COVID-19 — Life Care Center in Kirkland.

She’s working 16-hour shifts as a contract nurse there, and relying on her managers to handle Mighty Mugs. She’s young and able to self-isolate for the weeks she will need to as she works there, she said, so it made sense to help out. She said it’s amazing to see nurses work together, but incredibly sad to watch the residents not be able to see their family and many die from the virus.

“The staff has lost 22 people in the last two weeks, and that’s traumatic for people. For the (original staff) who have known these residents and were like family, to lose that many people in such a short amount of time has been really hard on the staff there,” Pettit said.

Because she’s literally living the life of medical staff, she knows how hard they are working. Mighty Mugs is offering a 50 percent off discount for medical workers, from cleaning crew to doctors in hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. She said everyone needs to play their part, and even her baristas can be friendly faces for the people that are looking for a quick espresso break from the heaviness all around. One of the coffee stands is right next to University of Washington Medicine Valley Medical Center in Renton.

“You really can tell how strong a community is by how much they support each other during a crisis,” Pettit said. “Everyone has something they can do during this weird time.”

Helping hands

Almost as soon as people began to follow Public Health – Seattle & King County guidelines to self isolate, people started looking to help others. Many people took to Facebook community group pages to ask if anyone needed help during the grocery shopping frenzies or to remind folks to check on their neighbors.

Renton resident Anna Choi posted on the “I Love Renton” community page to offer her help for anyone who was worried to go to get groceries or supplies due to being in a high risk category. She said she was inspired by a post she saw on social media of the photo of an elderly woman picking through what’s left of groceries in a near-empty store. The post reads: “Before all of us young(ish) healthy(ish) people go out and buy EVERYTHING in the shops, consider the people most at risk…,” followed by two supportive emojis.

Choi said it made her think of her grandmother, who used to live in Seattle’s international district and who would get groceries on her own. She said she wouldn’t feel comfortable letting her go out on her own to a store, especially if people are being aggressive over toilet paper. She also knows from living here that many Renton residents are older in age and might not be lucky enough to have family around to get them what they need.

Stephanie Browne lives in the east Renton Highlands and has seen people supporting each other online. She is the administrator for two Facebook groups that are constantly offering to one another, Renton Community Resources and Renton Buy Nothing. She said people are reaching out to give grocery trips, tips for kids at home for six weeks and checking in on neighbors.

On Monday, March 16, she said her phone was blowing up with messages and posts from immune-compromised folks that are concerned about being in the public or people losing jobs from coronavirus that need financial resources. She said the groups already set the tone of being generous communities, and she hasn’t seen that change, but instead shine during this outbreak. In times of need, people are stepping up.

“I think it’s important people pay attention to the needs but not over exaggerate what is needed,” Browne said. “I want to make sure people aren’t creating panic by the things they post, letting people know there are resources.”

So far Choi hasn’t had any takers on her offer, but she’s gotten a lot of support for volunteering her time for others. In the meantime she’s trying to help her family find items they need that keep fluctuating in stock at the local grocers.

“I’d rather put myself at risk then someone who may have health issues or just a weaker immune system in general. Think of the higher risk folks and not just yourself,” she said.

Maggie Perez Zuniga hosts the local branch of the Shalom Christian International from her home, and used to own the City Cafe and Pupuseria in Renton. She decided to start a group in Renton to help each other during the coronavirus.

For the group she’s putting together a list of folks who want to help and be able to create leaders in the community, with about 15 volunteers so far. She also created a fundraiser for Rentonites that have been laid off or otherwise in Renton, it’s a GoFundMe called “Rentonites in Need.”

As the situation is just starting, she said she’s had more calls for volunteering than the few calls for help. She also said it’s been hard to get through to people online who are skeptical about the seriousness of the virus outbreak.

“This is the first time we’ve been in this situation, we’re not prepared or know what to do. But eventually everyone will be on the same page, see there is a problem and that it needs a solution,” Perez Zuniga said.

Perez Zuniga also believes this is an opportunity to get neighbors to start coming together and knowing each other. She has a hotline volunteers or those in need can call to join in, 425-524-7753.

Supporting Renton business

While folks in self-isolation in neighborhoods around Renton peeked out their window, some have seen the site of C. Davis Texas BBQ Food Truck, set up in the middle of a suburb. The owner, Charles Davis, has been trying to find creative ways to get his food to the people.

Davis started his business eight years ago, with the help of Seattle Seahawk K.J Wright. The region has supported him and helped him grow all this time. He also gives back to his community — while schools are closed he’s trying to create events with free meals for kids.

“I grew up really, really poor. I know what it’s like to be without,” Davis said. “I want to do my part to get through this bad time for everybody and do what I can to give a kid a smile. The way the government is shutting down things it’s going to be even harder for kids to get food.”

But it won’t be easy on his business to give free food, he said he’s lost about $34,000 in business this month. He makes most of his money from catering events, which have all been canceled.

One way community members have supported each other is by supporting their local businesses, through takeout or gift cards or whatever way they could since the start of the outbreak.

On Sunday, March 15 Governor Jay Inslee announced, like several other states, that Washington would be closing bars and restaurants except for takeout and delivery. Entertainment and recreational businesses are also closed and many retailers have chosen to close their doors to help prevent the spread of the virus.

This has hit local businesses hard. Many restaurants in Seattle were shuttering due to the lack of customers even before the announcement, and small employers have had to cut their employees hours or lay them off completely. Jeremy Fields, regional administrator for the Pacific Northwest U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) office said before the crisis many economic developers were quick to point out that two out of every three new jobs are from small businesses. They are the backbone of the American economy.

“We can’t just let life stop completely, there are still things we can do to love and support one another and still stay safe,” Fields said. “I would encourage people to figure out how to enjoy the services available to them in their neighborhoods in a way that protects them and supports their small businesses.”

One of the sectors panicking right now is the event industry. Ari Hoffman owns Amusements on Demand for the greater Seattle region and said it’s scary to not know if inflatables he rents out to events in the area during the warmer months will be allowed— that’s when many in his field make their money for the year. Hoffman said the most he can hope for right now is that local officials start easing the burden on businesses.

One of the big options for small businesses is the Economic Injury Disaster Loans from SBA, which offer 3.75 percent interest rate to businesses and 2.75 percent to nonprofits. Fields said this is the first time they’ve been used during a pandemic. They will take a few weeks to get the funds, but can offer up to $2 million for those organizations in need.

But Fields also said he understands that some may be skeptical during all the uncertainty (Hoffman, for example, does not want to take out a loan and would like to see other support from officials). Fields said all the options SBA has for businesses, including different types of loans and free consultations, are all still available at its website.

“Just keep paying attention to the news and know that the SBA is going to help you as a small business, whether it’s financial needs or consulting,” Fields said.

Meanwhile, Hoffman is hoping parents might get bored during the six weeks school is canceled and rent a bouncy house for the family. It’s his only hope when every event is cancelled and gatherings of more than 50 are banned. He also emphasized that they are always thoroughly cleaned.

“The question is, is anybody going to be able to (rent them) if they lose their jobs? Or, their business closes? Or, they can’t get to work? Or, who knows what else?” he said. “People don’t see bounce houses as a priority, I get that I really do. It’s a luxury. But it’s still my livelihood, another industry being horribly affected that people make their living on.”


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Photo by Haley Ausbun. At Four Generals Brewing, they’ve been adjusting to the “new normal” by selling growlers to go for loyal customers.

Photo by Haley Ausbun. At Four Generals Brewing, they’ve been adjusting to the “new normal” by selling growlers to go for loyal customers.

Photo by Haley Ausbun. In just another unusual site during the coronavirus pandemic, IKEA has closed to help prevent the spread of the virus, leaving a large empty parking lot and a few confused folks driving up to read the sign explaining the closure.

Photo by Haley Ausbun. In just another unusual site during the coronavirus pandemic, IKEA has closed to help prevent the spread of the virus, leaving a large empty parking lot and a few confused folks driving up to read the sign explaining the closure.

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