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EL CAJON, Calif. — An El Cajon restaurant owner says pandemic restrictions and business shutdowns cost him some $250,000 this past year. He’s far from the only one feeling the squeeze.

“(It) was the worst I’ve ever seen since I came to this country in 1978,” Ali Baba owner Othman Kalasho said.

Even with San Diego County in the state’s orange reopening tier — allowing restaurants to serve customers outdoors as well as indoors at limited capacities — he says small businesses all over East County remain in survival mode due to the pandemic.

That’s why the city is offering assistance to some as part of the El Cajon Business Grant Program.

Last month, El Cajon City Council voted to distribute $5 million to the program, which is available to business owners and nonprofits in the community. The new funding is a portion allocated to the community from the American Rescue Plan Act signed into law in March by President Joe Biden.

Eligible businesses must have between two and 25 employees. Franchise restaurants and home-based businesses are not eligible, according to the city.

“Things are getting better as the state has relaxed some of the restrictions,” Councilmember Gary Kendrick said. “But these businesses have gone a long time without much income coming in.”

Applications now are being accepted with two options available to eligible applicants:

  • Option A is an employee hiring program offering businesses $5,000 each for employees hired from March through August with a maximum of $15,000 for three people hired; and
  • Option B pays businesses up to $15,000 for capital investments such as furniture, fixtures and equipment. It will not be available until at least mid-May pending City Council approval.

Echoing the sentiments of numerous business owners in recent months, Kalasho says hiring is a challenge on its own.

“Because some people, I think, don’t want to come back because they are collecting money sitting at home,” Kalasho said. “For the businesses, it’s very bad.”

At Busy B Thai Café, owner Troy Bushyakanist plans to apply and says any money is a big help.

“Big help — then I can take a day off,” Bushyakanist said. “Been here every day, seven days a week.”

The application deadline is Aug. 3 and businesses can apply through the city’s website.