City Council to consider emergency measures to assist businesses, residents amid COVID-19 concerns

Long Beach officials could take sweeping action Tuesday night to protect small businesses and residents negatively impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic by halting evictions and offering financial aid packages to potentially keep businesses afloat.

The item is expected to be submitted by four City Council members Friday afternoon who said that the measures were designed to keep businesses from closing shop and people in their homes while social distancing measures force some people to miss work to avoid becoming infected.

Potential emergency ordinances could be voted on as early as March 24. If passed, the ordinance would be in effect for 30 days or until emergency proclamations are lifted.

The impacts could be long lasting for the city, and the item’s supporters—Jeannine Pearce, Roberto Uranga, Mary Zendejas and Rex Richardson—said the requests could help to protect the city’s most vulnerable from the COVID-19 fallout, as well as small businesses and hourly workers.

“The rent always comes due,” Richardson said, noting that businesses also pay monthly rents. “We know there will be economic impacts and if you can’t pay your bills there are going to be consequences.”

The item’s addition to the City Council agenda for March 17 comes after all levels of school have been canceled across the city and large-scale events like the Grand Prix and conventions have had their plugs pulled in accordance with a state declaration that all gatherings of 250 or more people be postponed.

While events like the Grand Prix itself are part of multi-year contracts, the restaurants and hotels that benefit from its presence—and the employees that work there—will suffer in its absence. The race brings about $30 million into the city, losses that might not be easy to recover and could lead to lay-offs and closures.

The broad request includes prohibiting the termination of Section 8 housing voucher contracts and suspending utility providers from shutting off services to residents and businesses. The city controls water, sewer and gas, but most of its residents get electricity from Southern California Edison.

The request even calls for airport, convention center and hotel employees to be allowed to wash their hands every 30 minutes to help prevent the spread of the virus.

The largest request tucked into the package is a call to evaluate the feasibility of an economic relief package that would target businesses, residents and hotels across the city. This package could include partnering with financial institutions to prohibit foreclosures and halting mortgage payments for people who have suffered financially due to COVID-19.

“The district I represent has a lot of working-class residents that are losing paychecks due to these cancellations and we need to help them, not add to their stress,” Zendejas said. “This emergency ordinance will help relieve some of the pressure our families and business owners are feeling as we battle the spread of this disease.”

Those sentiments were echoed by Pearce and Uranga, who said that residents should not be punished for the inability to make payment deadlines because of the pandemic.

“Let’s not add to the stresses families are facing during this crises by exacerbating their already strapped resources,” Uranga said in a text explaining his support for the item.

If the recommendations are adopted, the city could also develop an emergency loan assistance program for small businesses. The city may halt collection of transient occupancy taxes or repay the taxes to city hotels that have been rocked by the mass cancellation of hotel stays, however the specifics of what the sharing program would actually do have yet to be worked out.

The item also calls for relief for laid-off or furloughed workers in affected industries like the city’s hospitality sector, which could include a “right of return” policy that could give workers who lose jobs in the coming weeks or months a priority when and if those business begin hiring again.

“We know our economy will take a hit and we have to do what’s best for the backbone of that economy, the workers and our neighbors,” said Pearce, who represents the Downtown area that includes the convention center and multiple hotels. “I know that we will come out of this stronger, safer and healthier as a  community once this moment has passed us.”

Richardson said that the details of many of these requests still need to be worked out, but the ask is for city staff to look into these ideas to see what is possible.

“We don’t want industries to go bankrupt,” Richardson said. “We need to figure out whatever we can do and put it on the table.”

Beto Lopez, project director for Long Beach Residents Empowered (LiBRE), said that his group is racing against the clock to secure short-term eviction protections for renters they represent who have expressed real fears that COVID-19 disruptions in the economy could force them out of their homes.

Lopez said he’s hopeful that the council can agree to these protections outlined in the supplemental agenda item without a protracted debate that has marred other attempts at implementing new housing policy in the past. Lopez said he’d like to see the council possibly call a special meeting, possibly on a Wednesday morning, to fast-track the passage of the emergency ordinances.

“People are scared, they’re not sure if they’re going to have a job or not when this is over,” Lopez said. “Right now we need people to understand that this is a real threat and if people lose their homes then what happens next?”

 

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