McAllen Business Weathers COVID-19 Pandemic
By Marco Ramirez
Photography By Marco Ramirez
McALLEN, TX – Randy Helmcamp has owned and operated Fiesta Cleaners for 25 years. But these last few weeks have been the most challenging for his small business.
“There are so many unknowns here,” Helmcamp said. “The biggest unknown is ‘When are we over the hump?’ And that keeps changing.”
While city policies to contain the ongoing coronavirus outbreak forced many nonessential businesses to shut down, Fiesta Cleaners is considered essential.
However, even when the outbreak began to spread in the U.S., Helmcamp never thought COVID-19 would have a direct impact on his daily life or his business.
“You know you hear these things and you just think they’re somewhere else” Helmcamp said. “But now it’s at our front door too.”
Since Fiesta Cleaners is still open, the only customer flow the business has seen comes from other essential workers such as police officers, border patrol agents, doctors and nurses.
“They still have to go about their daily business the best they can,” Helmcamp said. “There’s a need there and we’re hoping that we’re filling it.”
But that hasn’t been enough to keep them stable. As a result, Helmcamp had to make drastic changes.
“When they first came out, they had the two-weeks to stem the curve, and we thought we could weather that storm,” Helmcamp said. “Then it changed to the end of April, and that’s when we had to start to lay people off.”
For Helmcamp, having to cut 26 employees down to 10 was a difficult decision to make.
“A lot of these people have been with us 20, 24 years my employees and it really hurt,” Helmcamp said. “Not ever have I had to lay off due to a pullback or slowdown in business, we have always been able to manage through, but this is different.”
In addition to cutting over half of the workforce, the employees that remain at Fiesta Cleaners are working less hours that they used to. With a decrease in customers, employees are now dry-cleaning clothes two days out of the week. With low business at his storefront, a cloud of uncertainty hovers around Fiesta Cleaners.
Raquel Johnson has worked at Fiesta Cleaners for the past 25 years. She is grateful she still gets to come into work every day, but that gratitude also brings guilt for Johnson.
“When customers don’t come, I feel bad,” Johnson said. “I almost feel unworthy to be working here and not having enough work to do.”
Johnson is still holding on to hope that they will be back up and running soon.
“We’re going to go back up and we are going to be here for everybody because we have been here for 25 years and we can certainly be another 25 years here,” Johnson said. “I’m going to hold on until I see that there is no more hope but for now, we’re still hopeful.”
While employees like Johnson are still showing up to work, precautionary measures have been implemented to help protect them as well as their customers.
Employees have been working in their own cleaning stations that are six to eight feet apart as well as frequently washing their hands and wearing face masks. They are also enforcing social distancing by only allowing a maximum of three customers in the store front at a time.
As for the employees who were sent home, Helmcamp said he has applied for government assistance to help get them back on the payroll. He also said he will rehire them once things get back to normal.
But whenever that does happen, Helmcamp is not certain how long it will take for his business to fully recover.
“‘Will my business bounce back?’ That’s a big question there,” Helmcamp said. “What is the new normal going to be?”
And as Helmcamp waits to see what the future holds for his business, he’s not the only one who is struggling to stay afloat during this pandemic.
“The majority of people are in the same situation I’m in,” Helmcamp said. “It doesn’t give you comfort, but at least you know you aren’t doing anything personally.”
For now, Helmcamp said the cut backs he made financially will help keep his store open. He also doesn’t think the City of McAllen will change their COVID-19 restrictions that would force him to shut down, but it’s still a possibility. Helmcamp is prepared for whatever may happen down the road.
“If that happens it just happens,” Helmcamp said. “We started out in this business from nothing, we opened stores and started from nothing, so I don’t want to have to do that but if I had to, I’d do it.”
“I’d do it all over again.”