Most days during the past few months, downtown has been largely devoid of its usual foot traffic. The Alamo is mostly obscured from view, still surrounded by yellow plastic barricades and metal fencing. The stores across the street open their doors to customers but have seen business dwindle as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

One July afternoon, Frank Sepulveda sat at the cash register of the Plaza Marketplace, sheltered from the summer heat. When two people entered, he pointed to different parts of the shop – jewelry is 50 percent off, while clothing is 30 percent to 50 percent discounted, he told them. They thanked him and ventured deeper into his store, which was otherwise empty.

The store has been largely empty since March, when the mayor and county judge first issued stay-at-home orders that restricted nonessential businesses. The Plaza Marketplace and many of its downtown neighbors had to close their doors. They reopened in May as part of the phased reopening established by the governor. But business hasn’t recovered. Even when weekend foot traffic picks up slightly, it makes little difference.

“Some days we’re 80 percent down [in sales],” Sepulveda said. “Some days we’re 90 percent down, some days 95 percent – that’s how bad it is. It’s terrible.

“Even with drastic markdowns, we don’t have the traffic – no matter what we do.”

The sidewalk along Alamo Plaza is nearly empty near the Plaza Marketplace, which is closed. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Sepulveda and his wife, Kathy Sepulveda, own six businesses downtown, he said. On East Houston Street, their San Antonio Ranch store is the only one on its block still regularly open to customers. Across the street, Regalos Mexicanos and Mar Imports keep their doors closed. Their neighbor El Vaquero, a western wear and custom boots shop, reduced its hours, owner Mike Ghori said.

“Business is zero,” Ghori said.

Ghori’s shop was one of the downtown businesses vandalized and looted in late May after protests against police brutality turned violent. More than 20 downtown businesses reported damage from that night, according to Centro San Antonio, a downtown advocacy group. And while repairs cost business owners money, it’s the impact of the coronavirus pandemic that weighs on their minds.

El Vaquero is closed on East Houston Street. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Capistrano Soap Co. owner Deborah Sibley has replaced a window broken that night, but she keeps her La Villita storefront closed because of the downturn in foot traffic. Unlike most retail stores downtown, she sees strong online sales and wholesale income, she said. Many of her customers are bed-and-breakfast establishments in the Hill Country and individuals from around the nation.

“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of repeat business from those people who found us when they were in San Antonio visiting,” Sibley said. “We’re grateful they continue to buy from us.”

She acknowledged that her business model is unique among the downtown stores, which attribute most of their sales to visitors. She serves on the board of the La Villita Tenants Association and said many businesses in La Villita don’t sell their goods on the internet. Not only can people buy Capistrano Soap Co. products online, local customers can find them at Central Market, Sibley said.

“Because of that, if you don’t want to make the trip downtown, there are alternative places you can pick up,” she said. “We’re a little different animal than other retail establishments downtown.”

Ghori, who has been at his downtown location since 1994, said he has had only five or six paying customers throughout the pandemic. He has been trying to encourage customers to call for appointments but has had little luck. A good chunk of his customer base comes from out of town visitors, he said.

“We have no pedestrian traffic because the hotels are empty,” Ghori said. “The tourists are not coming, no pedestrian traffic except peak hours – between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., maybe 2 and 3:30. But this is less than 10 percent [of the usual number of] people.”

Restaurants downtown also are struggling with fewer tourists in San Antonio. Schilo’s on East Commerce Street is operating at about 30 percent of its typical business, owner Bill Lyons said. The end of summer usually slows down a bit, he acknowledged, with families getting ready for school again. But more significant, the large events that brought customers to Schilo’s have been called off.

“Conventions were canceled, Fiesta was canceled,” Lyons said. “We had other convention groups that were kind of hanging on, but they have canceled. … If we can just break even, we’re going to hang in there.” 

Lyons also owns Casa Rio next door, and without tourists on the River Walk and downtown, those restaurants lose a large portion of their usual customer bases. The restaurants’ director of sales and marketing, L’Lee Cameron, said other downtown restaurants are struggling with the same problems.

“I have colleagues that do my job at other restaurants and everyone’s suffering,” Cameron said. “I don’t think anyone is doing any better than anyone else.”

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.