‘Blown away’ by inflation: How Sonoma County residents are coping with historically high prices
Tempers flared and car horns blared at the Costco gas station in south Santa Rosa. A line of cars waiting to fill up at the members-only fueling station late in the afternoon had backed up, and was now blocking traffic at the entrance to the shopping center.
Swooping to the rescue, a gesticulating, yellow-vested Costco employee instructed motorists to “Please move forward!” Order was soon restored.
Even with the wait of 10 to 15 minutes, “it’s still worth coming here,” said Alex Corcoran, pointing to the $6.19 price for a gallon of unleaded — 60 cents per gallon cheaper than at the Chevron just up Santa Rosa Avenue.
Gary Deeths prefers to gas up in the morning, when the line is half as long, he said. “But I was running late today.” Asked how he felt about the historically high gas prices, he shrugged and channeled Tony Soprano:
“What are you gonna do? I need gas.”
His car took $90 to fill. That’s not bad, said an observer, laboring to be optimistic. Deeths disagreed.
That was the consensus among a cross section of Sonoma County consumers and business owners who spoke to the Press Democrat in the wake of recent reports that inflation is accelerating, not slowing down.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced June 10 that the country’s rate of inflation reached 8.6% in May, its highest level since December 1981. That stratospheric number — driven largely by a 48% uptick in gas prices — threw a wet blanket on hopes that inflation had peaked in April, prompting the Federal Reserve on Wednesday to raise interest rates by a whopping 0.75% — its largest increase in nearly three decades — in hopes of cooling off the economy.
That grim news jibed with the pain people are feeling at the gas pump, the grocery store and in countless other aspects of their daily lives, forcing them to scrimp, cut corners and otherwise adjust to a harsh new fiscal reality.
‘How do they do it?’
To save on fuel, Deeths started riding his bike to work a couple times a week, a 26-mile round trip from Windsor. “Takes about an hour each way,” he said. “It’s a great workout.”
Describing the price of gas as “horrible,” Maria Cruz of Windsor reported that she and her husband are now eating out less. Such austerity measures can have a cascading effect.
“When the price of chicken or lettuce doubles, we can’t just double the prices on the menu,” said Sonu Chandi, president and founder of Chandi Hospitality Group, which owns Beer Baron in downtown Santa Rosa, and Mountain Mike’s Pizza on Cleveland Ave.
The result is that “our bottom line is shrinking,” said Chandi, who describes his business as “more of a franchise and real estate development company. If I was just owning and operating a single restaurant, it would be a very challenging time to survive.”
Maureen Keaveny no longer buys red meat. “I look at the price of beef and I’m like, ‘Wow!’” she said Wednesday while pushing a cart through one of the canyon-like aisles at FoodMaxx, a discount supermarket in Rohnert Park.
A nurse at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, Keaveny reports that she’s shopping “more intentionally,” picking up more generic brands and, if a staple is on sale, buying more in bulk, an admission which prompted her to say: “Now I sound like my mother.”
Keaveny has a cushion. She’s going to be fine. “My kids are gown and out of the house,” she said. “I’m just taking care of me.”
The folks her heart goes out to, she said, are the nurses aides, cafeteria workers and others at the hospital who don’t make as much. “And they have kids, and I’m just thinking ‘Oh my God, how do they do it?’”
Working families hardest hit
Indeed, the double whammy of sky-high gas prices alongside broader inflation is landing hardest on the working class. Inflation is like a “regressive tax that hits lower middle income families harder than higher income families,” said Robert Eyler, an economics professor at Sonoma State University.
Even during periods of high inflation, many homeowners have seen the prices of their houses go up, noted Eyler. That gives them “a way of hedging against inflation” that’s unavailable to those who don’t own homes.
The cost of renting, meanwhile, jumped 12.9% in Sonoma County in 2021. Rents in Santa Rosa were up 12.6%, while rising 14.5% in Petaluma.
There is this ray of light from the construction industry: the price of lumber has fallen by half since March.