Business operators share fears, plans for reopening when orders are relaxed

An emergency meeting of the Economic Development and Finance Committee, Thursday night, shed grim light on what the future of Long Beach’s local economy could look like as business owners and city officials shared their concerns for the future and hinted at how things could look once the economy begins to open up.

The meeting was the first of two which will allow local business leaders, workers and others to share their ideas on how the city can and should open back up. These meetings were called as county and state officials have publicly stated that changes to the stay-at-home order could be weeks, not months away.

Former Mayor Bob Foster, who was tapped to lead an advisory group that could help steer the direction and speed of the city’s economic reopening, said that the first round of suggestions from the group could come as soon as next week. They would be governed by public safety and realism, he said.

“People are united on this,” Foster said. “They want to do the right thing, they want to make sure the health care system impact is minimal but everyone wants to get this economy open and open in the proper way.”

While some businesses may not survive the economic shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, others have begun to plan for what could be a very different future. City health officials warned that life would not go back to business as usual until a vaccine is found.

Steve Goodling, president of the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that depending on what guidelines are given for future physical distancing precautions, the convention center could see some of its conference rooms shrink by half capacity. Others could be reduced to one-third of their pre-COVID-19 volumes.

Goodling shared a photo of the convention center’s grand ballroom which normally holds up to 1,200 guests. The set up showed what it would look like with 200 seats to allow for adequate distancing.

The changes in capacity could lead to the loss of conventions for the city and Goodling said that a clear direction on what guidelines could be could help prevent those losses.

“We really soon need to be able to tell people, because if we can’t host them here in Long Beach, they will be looking at states neighboring us,” Goodling said.

There is about $78 million in projected economic impact scheduled at the convention center through the end of the year, according to Goodling. In the first five months of 2021, there’s an additional $64 million projected.

Large gatherings like conventions would be part of Phase 4, the last phase of a plan the city has put together which will determine when certain businesses and event spaces can open. Goodling said he doubted that the summer conventions would go on as planned which means the city could lose a projected $25 million in economic impact.

Depending on the guidance handed down in a few months, Goodling said the convention center could still host a percentage of those events, but which ones will depend on how many feet of space needs to be maintained between guests.

If the six-foot physical distance guideline is still required, he estimated about a quarter of confirmed conventions could still happen, a $48 million loss for the city. If it’s four-feet, about 75% could still occur but that move would still result in a $16 million loss.

The emergency meeting brought together voices of restaurant owners and non-profit operators, all of whom have said the pandemic was an economic hindrance. Katherine Miles, executive director of the Jewish Family and Children Services, said that fundraising this year was down by 40% compared to last year, while requests for aid were up about 30%. Miles fears those requests will only go up once bills, some of which have been been the subject of forbearance, come due.

“I do not believe we will be able to make up the gap,” Miles said of the organization’s dip in fundraising.

Restauranteurs wondered how they could reopen and what would happen if someone got sick at their establishment. Would the government force the restaurant to close for 14 days to ensure the transmission was limited? Would they be subjected to lawsuits by customers or employees who thought they were infected with the virus at their business?

“I’m very concerned about people getting sick, my employees, liabilities, I don’t want to get sued if people think they contracted something,” said Debbie Colacion, owner of Blackbird Cafe in the Cal Heights neighborhood.

The idea that the capacity of dine-in customers would have to be capped led one operator to say she might raise prices or charge a fee to dine inside the restaurant.

Some asked if the City Council could intervene to place a cap on the fees charged by delivery services that are essential to restaurants staying afloat. They all stressed that safety for everyone in the restaurant was their main concern.

“I believe the public must feel safe,” said Luis Navarro, owner of Lola’s Mexican Cuisine, The Socialist and Portuguese Bend. “With the public feeling safe, that’s going to alleviate a lot of the challenges that are going to be posed.”

Navarro said that one change that he hoped could stay was the recent loosening of alcohol laws that have allowed establishments like his to serve to-go cocktails to patrons ordering food.

“I haven’t heard anyone trying to stop that but I think that’s a huge component to us just being able to stay alive,” Navarro said.

The concerns and comments shared during the virtual meeting, and those submitted prior to it using the city’s meeting interface, will be considered along with the city-issued questionnaire it issued earlier this week as it probes for public opinion of what facilities would be considered safe to return to in the coming months.

Councilman Rex Richardson, who chairs the committee, said that the next meeting on May 14 would include voices from labor, the arts and other impacted portions of the city’s economy.

“This is not the end of the conversation,” Richardson said.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.