by Sophia Isabel Quintana
Establishments surrounding the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) campus rely heavily on the student population, but with the spread of COVID-19, which later led into lockdown, the return of students in their hometowns kilometers away from the quaint university town of Los Baños, and shifting to remote learning setups, the situation seemed bleak for them.
Before the pandemic, UPLB welcomed more than 2,600 new freshmen for Batch 2019 and had a total of 12,027 enrolled students in the same year. Because more students choose to rent close to the campus, businesses are naturally drawn to operate where there is a high concentration of the student population. Mitcel Fruitstand, Heager’s Hut, and Nancy & Aling C Mini Talipapa are some of these establishments that had to brave the losses that the pandemic brought upon the business sector.
BRAVING THE PANDEMIC
The pandemic started in March 2020, the beginning of the summer season. Fresh fruit drinks and shakes are a hit during this time, especially among students who are having their lunch breaks or have spare time on their hands to grab refreshments. Mitcel Fruitstand and Nancy & Aling C Mini Talipapa are two establishments that catered to this need, but they experienced a massive loss when the whole province of Laguna was put under lockdown and students went back to their hometowns as face-to-face classes were halted.
Mitar Lapiz, the owner of Mitcel Fruitstand, has been operating for three years just before the pandemic started. He recalls how different their situation was when there were stricter restrictions and sympathizes with smaller businesses near them that had to close due to high rent but low income.
“Wala kaming bayad sa pwesto pero kung may bayad sa pwesto, malulugi na din. Ang nakaka-recover lang diyan yung mga maliliit ang bayad sa pwesto. Madaming sarado, nakaka-awa,” he said when he talked about how they were able to prevent their store from closing down. The cash assistance they received from the government were also used for their capital which helped in keeping their business alive.
(We do not pay rent for the place but if there was a fee, we would have gone bankrupt. Only those who pay less rent will be able to recover [from the pandemic]. A lot of stores closed, it is pitiful.)
When there were more restrictions, Mitar shared that they did not let customers inside, instead the store had a plastic barrier as a precaution. Since his family also lives in the same area, he wanted to make sure that they would be safe from the virus. But now that Laguna is under Alert Level 1 this March, things are slowly easing for them, and they no longer keep a plastic barrier down. Customers are also already welcome inside their store.
Nancy Sevilla, the owner of Nancy & Aling C Mini Talipapa, has been in the same business for five years. Although her new store, which is now located at Demarces, has only been operating for a year, she used to have a smaller fruit stand in the area in front of Jollibee, which has since been demolished.
Because of the exodus of students, she ventured out to sell vegetables to cater to the citizens of Los Baños and to keep their income circulating. Selling vegetables had not been easy for them during the peak of the pandemic. She shares that looking for vegetables to sell was already a challenge in itself because traveling to other provinces, and even barangays, required going through checkpoints that oftentimes did not let non-residents enter.
“Ang nakakatuwa dito sa UP, aware sila na may virus. Aware sila na nandiyan lang talaga ‘yon, ‘di nawawala. Hindi mo kailangan sabihin sa kanila na ‘puno po kami, bawal pumasok’, they know already. Pag nakita nila na jam-packed, maghihintay yung iba sa labas. O kaya ike-cater namin sila sa labas,” Sevilla says as she shares how they operated during the pandemic. When she has senior citizen customers with vehicles, she would ask for their orders and personally bring it to them so that they do not have to go down anymore to pick orders themselves.
(Something we appreciate about the residents here is that they are aware of the virus. They are aware that it is present. You do not have to tell them ‘We are full, please do not enter’, they already know. When they see that the store is full, they will wait outside. Sometimes we would cater to them outside.)
This is the same sentiment of Ronel Quintana, who works at the Heager’s Hut located near FO Santos St. Heager’s Hut, which has been operating for over a year, sells rice, vegetables, and other organic products. They used to have a smaller store in the same area which had operated for four years. He says that he noticed customers would take it upon themselves to wait outside if they see that another person is still in the store. Customers have the initiative to wait for their turn and keep their distance because they are aware of the restrictions being imposed.
When the situation was more restrictive than it is now, Ronel said that they only allowed one customer at a time inside the store. Aside from alcohol and a digital thermometer, they also prepared a rug soaked in bleach for customers to step on before entering the store.
With the university preparing for the possible return to face-to-face classes soon, students are slowly looking to come back to dorming near the campus and businesses are once again booming, especially now that there are few restrictions. Lapiz, Sevilla, and Quintana also conveyed their hopes for the situation to slowly return to normal. They all stressed the importance of the presence of the student population to the businesses that are near the campus.
They mentioned that their operations would stay the same as it is now even when there would be more students in the municipality. Quintana, in particular, said that masks would be something that would stay even as things go back to normal. He also added that he would allow two to three persons inside the store in order to accommodate as many customers as possible without having the space get cramped.
“Maraming matutulungan, maraming magkakaroon ulit ng hanapbuhay, kasi halos lahat ng mga taga-rito ay nakadepende sa UP…’Pag magbubukas ang UP sa face-to-face, malaki ang tulong niyan sa mga mamamayan dito mula sa pinakamababang uri ng trabaho hanggang sa pinakamataas,” he said when asked about his expectations for when things go back to normal.
(A lot of businesses will be helped, a lot of people will have jobs again, because almost everyone in this area depends on UP. If UP returns face-to-face, it would be of great help to everyone from the lowest kind of job to the highest.)
Sevilla, on the other hand, hopes to add more to their inventory because she wants to be able to provide everything that they can for students so that they do not have to spend on transportation to go to the market. Seeing as she currently only has one blender for making fruit shakes, she also hopes to add more to prepare for the influx of students.
She recalls making lasting connections with her regular customers from her old location and mentions that she would give them free shakes during special occasions, such as their graduation or birthdays. The return of the student population makes her hopeful and excited.
Lapiz also expressed his hopes for the increase in the student population. He mentions that students would sit in his store as they order fruit shakes. He said that they used to finish one and a half sacks of ice in making shakes but now could only finish half, or sometimes even less than that.
Although they all went through different circumstances to keep their establishments up and running, all have one thing in common: they are hoping for the situation to continue to get better and to not return to lockdowns anymore in order to keep their businesses alive and to witness the return of the UPLB students.