Home News What comes after the worst year ever?

What comes after the worst year ever?

Late-night patrons visit a stretch of Pine Avenue closed off to traffic between First Street and Broadway. Photo by Cheantay Jensen.

Remember the other years? And how, when each troubled one finally and mercifully sputtered to its end, we sang and drank champagne and danced happily on its grave with the promise that the following year would be better.

Yeah, we did that when 2019 died, too. Surely 2020 would be better than worldwide terrorism, climate change gathering steam, “bomb cyclone” blizzards, hurricanes, typhoons, bombings, riots and, farther down below the fold, a little item about how a coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China. It’s how COVID got its “19” designation.

So, no, surely 2020 turned out to be the worst one yet for many millions of people. If nothing else, it’s unified the world in a hatred for a year expressed in every language.

But let’s scroll back the focus and just look at Long Beach, a city that relies heavily on dining and conventions. As COVID increased wildly, indoor dining disappeared in restaurants, many of which took to creative ways to offer outdoor dining with the construction of parklets. Bars were shuttered and remained dark until many of them loopholed their way back into a limited business by teaming with nearby restaurants and food trucks, enabling them to serve alcohol, though, again, only outdoors.

The city’s once robust convention business? Over and out for virtually all of COVID’s reign of terror, and along with the loss in convention business came the loss of hotel bookings and the city’s hotels went either dim or dark and scrambling for innovative ways to at least lure some people to their properties by such methods as showing outdoor poolside movies.

Businesses, too, were shut down unless they were deemed essential. Eventually, some reopened with a limited number of customers allowed inside at any one time.

And all of these businesses weathered—or didn’t—see-sawing health ordinances, much to merchants’ anger and confusion.

The city’s financial management director John Gross has estimated that Long Beach’s budget could be hit with shortfalls of more than $27 million a year through 2024. Unemployment numbers have exploded and the economy, obviously, has been pummeled.

There’s little doubt that the business losses and overall financial fallout will affect the city for several years, even if COVID were to disappear today or in the next few weeks or months.

And all of this is to say nothing of the city’s 277 deaths and roughly 17,000 reported cases as of early December.

Depressing? That’s not even the word for it.

Hopeless? That’s a different story. This is Long Beach, namesake of (if not its epicenter) the 1933 Long Beach Earthquake, after which we sifted through the rubble, dusted ourselves off and got to work rebuilding the city.

Can Long Beach survive and rebound again? COVID isn’t an earthquake. The 1933 event struck hard and fast and then went away, leaving the city to do its rebuilding without the interference of further calamity. COVID isn’t as easy to work through as it becomes increasingly perilous and rebuffs much of humanity’s efforts to rebuild the damage it’s already done. Ignoring the disease in order to bring things back to normal certainly isn’t a good strategy. The issue every country, every state, every city is asking is how or if we can manage to carry on much longer, how bad has COVID hurt us in 2020, and what does the future hold.

We talked to several key people who continue to work to, at a minimum, keep the city or their business afloat. Among them there are varying degrees of optimism and hope. There is an undeniable willingness and spirit to get Long Beach and its residents back on their civic feet again.

Kraig Kojian, president and CEO of the Downtown Long Beach Alliance: To overstate the obvious, 2020 was an unbelievably rough year for everyone and for the ages, but economically speaking, it was especially tough on small businesses and their employees. The local business community has done an incredible job of adapting and pivoting to meet the many challenges thrown their way, but there are breaking points for everyone. Unfortunately we see the collateral damage every day.

Going into 2021, if the pandemic and restrictive health protocols limiting business operations continue, we may start to see a new personal strain that becomes too much for most. It’s more important than ever that we lean heavily on health and safety practices and immediately work to create more direct financial assistance resources for businesses.

For the first time in decades, we saw a year of tremendous social movement and demand for change in the way our society and public institutions view and approach race and equity. That has also made its mark on Downtown, and I trust and expect that our community will take the lessons learned this year and move forward with momentum into 2021.

What will 2021 look like in Downtown Long Beach? I doubt that we’ll get back to large events or gatherings, but I hope that by the summer months, when hopefully a good portion of our community is vaccinated, life will return to a closer sense of normalcy and folks can get back to interacting at local businesses and in public places.

Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau: With the shut-down in March our convention customers realized they had to go virtual instead of in-person, and as we’re allowed to gather once again in the future, they want the opportunity to go hybrid with both in-person attendance and people logging on from their homes or offices.

So, between the convention center and the CVB, we decided to create a new department, Director of Creative Initiative, because of the technology of interactivity, chat, polling and everything else. We were able to look at several platforms and bring them all into our portfolio. So as we’re permitted to gather in the future customers will want to go hybrid with the opportunity to log on or attend in person.

We’ve polled convention planners and more than 50% want to do something like this, so the clock is reset and people are looking forward to being able to do this. And because of the work we’ve done with technology, we’re at the forefront of these kinds of conventions. We’ve gotten national recognition in trade publications, and competitors have been trying to understand how we did it. It’s caused quite a buzz in the industry. We’re the first convention center in the U.S. to be able to activate its entire campus for interactivity.

For 2021, I’m optimistic that we’ll see light at the end of the tunnel because of the vaccine, because we’ve learned a new trade that’ll put us right in the forefront. We’ve managed to save  35% of our conventions for future years. We’re very optimistic. All we need is a vaccine.

Dede Rossi
Dede Rossi has been a leader in the Belmont Shore business community for over a decade. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Dede Rossi, executive director of the Belmont Shore Business Association: I’m not optimistic. You want to be the one to say, “Hey it’ll be great.” But I don’t feel like that person right now.

We rely a lot on special events like the car show, the Christmas Parade, the Stroll and Savor evenings. They help us raise money to do more things for our businesses, and losing them in 2020 has really cut back our finances. We haven’t had the budget to even pay people. I don’t think we lost many businesses to COVID; we lost some to retirement and maybe the COVID caused that. I don’t know what the future will hold; we’ll probably lose a few places but I hope we don’t.

Losing outdoor dining hurts the restaurants for sure. People come to Belmont Shore to eat, and with new parklets there was a new energy on the street, a lit parklet here and there, and now that it’s going to be dark we don’t know what it’s going to be like.

So I’m a little worried about bringing people down at all, there’s no place to come and sit and relax and have a meal. Now most people are having food delivered.

I’m hoping in 2021 we can have something in the spring, a street festival. I was thinking it’d be fun to have to do something after Mother’s Day, close the street, have a festival, like a Beach Streets. I’ve got it in my mind but we just have to wait.

It’s just crazy. I feel terrible just watching people go through this. I was at Nick’s today and we tipped our wait person like 35 bucks. The hard part is all this happening right before the holidays.

Then you hear about people wanting to fight it and open things up. The bottom line is COVID is a thing: It’s bad.

Our problem is Orange County is right next door. They still have outdoor dining. I won’t go to Orange County. People think this is not really happening and they say they’ll go to Orange County to eat. They say, “I’ll do what I want.” They’re still my friends, I just don’t want to listen to it. I respect people wearing masks. We should’ve done all this a long time ago.

Everyone in city government is trying their best, but it’s just hard. It’s COVID.

I’m optimistic, really. I have to be, but I’m not today.

Blair Cohn, executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association: What keeps me up is wondering is this how it’s going to be? I have a 5-year-old daughter and she has to wear a mask. When I was her age we all just went wild. We were free, had holes in our pants, shoes all scuffed up.

We knew this thing was coming, just wash your hands and you’ll be alright. In late March early April, I walked to Lola’s at Cartagena and Atlantic. No cars around, and all you heard was a street sign squeaking in the wind. And I thought this is surreal. This is the “Twilight Zone.”

But we’ve managed. I would sit and obsess about how are we going to keep the community engaged with us, what are we gonna do?

We moved everything online and continued with content. We had been having jazz bands play, and restaurants provided food, and we had some nighttime activity. Now, every Saturday we put out links to a cool jazz performance or film clips. We’ve continued walking; it’s been almost 13 years with the Bixby Knolls Strollers. We have virtual First Fridays through emails of local performers. In late March I said well, shoot, we can’t stop First Fridays, so we contacted the trolley company. and we had an Easter Bunny and drove down every street and took First Fridays to the people. We did it again at Halloween and we have a holiday one that we’re working on. So we’ve changed but not limited our activity. We sent out daily emails to the community saying here’s what’s open, here’s what you can do, so we haven’t slowed down one bit.

There has been angst and anxiety that’s led to civil unrest and a heated political environment, and what I call dodging the raindrops—things we can’t control, so we combat negativity with positivity. I tell people the sun is up and you live in a great part of town, let’s acknowledge that and keep our little hamlet thriving.

As for 2021: Gosh. We lost people in 2020, we put our beloved Annie the bulldog down two weeks ago. I don’t know, man, let’s have a vaccine or two, let’s get it to people, let’s plummet the numbers, get back to positivity, get rid of the anger, let’s have civility from leadership, Washington. Gotta be hopeful. You have to be. I just try to be optimistic about 2021 because I choose to be.

Jeremy Harris, president and CEO of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce: A lot of what we do involves big events, and obviously we can’t do that anymore, so we have to ask, what do those big events look like? Can we ever return to gathering? Is the hybrid model going to be the future? Will events be in person with a hundred people watching on their computers?  The silver lining is the future is here now instead of the future.

I think next summer is a really good-looking possibility to get back to more of a normal situation. On the negative side the virus has decimated an economy that was clicking on all cylinders at the beginning of the year. Stores were open, and new ones were opening in population centers like Downtown. Hospitality was great, hotels were on record pace, then COVID came and  everything went backward. This year makes 2008 look like a blip. We had a relatively good couple of months in summer when we saw numbers come down a bit and you saw commerce starting to come back, and now we’re back to seeing a record spike, people losing jobs, or being furloughed.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s forced us to innovate quickly. Gone are the days of in-person networking, but realizing that’s important, we launched Good Afternoon Long Beach virtually and have come up with more innovative virtual programming when we would’ve had breakfasts, ribbon-cutting and other events in person.

We’re working remotely through the end of the year. We decided that in September when we saw numbers going up, and they’ll probably remain at home longer. We’ll have to see when the appropriate time is to bring them back, and then it will be a hybrid of working in the office and working at home.

The restaurants are obviously hurting, and they’re closed for indoor and outdoor dining at least until Dec. 20, but I think you and I know it’s going to be longer. I think you’re going to see more restaurants close and those that survive, we’ll look at how they did it, but you won’t see the same number of restaurants that people are used to seeing.

How Downtown will recuperate depends a lot on what happens to office space Downtown. If you’re a restaurant depending on getting consumers from the lunch crowd, it’ll take longer. If condos and housing increases in Downtown, the restaurants will be alright if the residents patronize them.

I’m still bullish on Downtown remaining a place of excited growth. If Long Beach is going to step out of the shadow of LA, the Downtown hub is where things will happen and it will spread into the rest of the city, Bixby Knolls and Uptown.

Chris Wacker, CEO of Laserfiche, headquartered in Long Beach: Our entire company, with about 450 people worldwide and about 320 in Long Beach, is working remotely. We began doing that about a week before the lockdown in March. We’re fortunate to be in a position of providing what the world needs right now, which is to work remotely, and since very few people go into office, we’re surviving.

I feel this pandemic has caused a lot of organizations to use the technology developed over the past 12 years, such as working remotely, and using Zoom, Webex, Microsoft Teams and others. By using those technologies there will be a great savings from a lack of phyisical presence required for meetings. We’re experiencing great savings. We were negotiating with the city of Santa Clara back when COVID started and we were sending a team of six to meet with their team, then that meeting was cancelled and rescheduled as virtual, so there was no transportation, no time out of office, no per diem. We set up the meeting, did it in an hour and moved on. It was a huge savings for us. Will we ever have a physical meeting, of course, but there are a lot of times we can do it virtually and so the savings will be great. That we will continue.

We’re building a 102,000 square-foot headquarters on Long Beach Boulevard and we were anticipating keeping some people in our old building and moving others into the new one, but now we don’t need all that space, because we’ll have people working remotely indefinitely. People can be trusted, you don’t have to sit on top of them, you can judge them by the quality of their work instead of time spent in the office. It’s a great thing for management in any company. I feel  the staff is working at least as hard and probably much harder than when they were in the office.

Other businesses, I feel for them and I encourage all people who are benefitting to assist those businesses that are suffering.

I’m hearing very promising news on the vaccine front. I wasn’t expecting one so quickly. Just based on reports from Moderna, J&J, AstraZeneca and Pfizer, I’m quite encouraged and I expect we’ll have a vaccine in 2021. That will stabilize the economy and get people to travel, patronize restaurants and bars, and I hope they continue to be washing their hands, wearing masks, and maintaining social distance. Those things really help. Handshakes? I don’t do those anymore.

Becky Blair president and principal of Coldwell Banker Commercial BLAIR WESTMAC: I think all of us are not doing as well because of the virus. It’s true of every business in the city, some are more upsetting than others, like restaurants. The restrictions, the curfew, the closures will cause businesses to not only be upset, but some will have to close their doors. I think the city government is doing the best they can, but it’s difficult.

I think the commercial real estate market has been hurt not only by COVID, but by technology; people are finding they can do as much at home as in the office.

Commercial real estate, especially retail, is not doing well. But right now residential real estate is doing very well, so we’ll probably see some action, especially in buildings under $10 million, because there are a lot of business owners, especially doctors, who are looking to buy instead of continuing to lease.

Based on what we’ve seen in the past, if we didn’t have the virus, we’d see an uptick in business, but  because of the virus, I can’t make a guess on what’ll happen.

Seiji Steimetz, Professor & Chair of Economics at California State University, Long Beach: ·Economically what describes Long Beach is we started with some of the lowest unemployment numbers in history, then with COVID we saw an unprecedented increase in unemployment. Since then we’ve seen a gradual and cautious recovery, and then, we’ve had this new setback.

The effect will depend on the length of this new ordinance. The closest we have in comparison to what that would do is in late June early July when bars were ordered closed and inside dining was prohibited. In the worst week, in mid-July, unemployment claims went up 60% in Long Beach.

Part of the story is about adaptability—how quickly can restaurants pivot to take-out and delivery. It affects a lot of people and a lot of jobs. In Long Beach, almost 12% of wage employees are in accommodations and food services, the second largest sector in the city next to health.

In 2021, if we can manage to all wear masks, stay distant, we’re definitely on a track to improvement. A gradual and cautious one. Of all the jobs lost in the county, the percentage we’ve gotten back right now is about 30%. Over 700,000 jobs disappeared in two months. From April to now about 200,000 jobs have come back in the county. We won’t know those figures in Long Beach until next year.

We are clearly on the path to recovery, not as fast as people might hope for. The question is can we control the pandemic to the point where we can open up more broadly. If we can beat it by the middle of next year, the employment levels could come back, but all bets are off if we can’t beat it. Suppose in the middle of 2021 we get back to where we were. We’d be celebrating zero economic growth for a year and a half.

In a normal year, if the economy grew by 1% it would be very bad economic news.

Wear a mask, live through these health orders. Or we could fall back into the hole.

If I had a magic wand to fix the economy, for me it would be to wave it and make people listen to health experts.

Dr. Mauricio Heilbron, surgeon and vice chief of staff at St. Mary Medical Center: The good science is we know it’s spiraling out of control. We know in many areas that opening restaurants and bars, the numbers spike and when you close the restaurants and bars the numbers go down.

To protect the community we have to do things to keep the public safe.

We do know that in restaurants by definition people spend a certain amount of time with their mouths open, and not to be indelicate, burping and belching.

There is science that dining outdoors with proper distance is safer, but I haven’t seen that proper distance in most of the outdoor dining.

I think the rush to get back to normal may have doomed us to a holiday disaster — and this is before Thanksgiving.

The question is how bad is it going to get, and that’s not a good question to have to ask.

I don’t think we can do it in a way that would make it feasible for restaurants. No one would open a business that would be limited to 25% occupancy. You need a business model where you can make it with limited outdoor dining and a large amount of take-out. COVID is forcing us to do things we’re not happy doing.

I’m worried about the holidays. What if recent numbers aren’t a spike, but a plateau. Spike indicates a peak, this might not be a peak yet.

The timing literally could not be worse, between winter, the flu, the holidays.

The time is gonna come when history will show that it’s been spread through intentional willful ignorance. It’s not political, it’s ignorance. People don’t believe in COVID until they get it and then they’re converts, but in the meantime they’ve been passing the virus along.

Tom Modica, Long Beach city manager: We’re managing through some pretty weird, strange times. I think 2020 is the most amazing of years, no other has been as challenging, with issues of systemic racism, the George Floyd protests,  and of course the pandemic. At the same time we’re trying to manage all of that and doing things we haven’t done before, like rental assistance, tenant harassment and directing payments to businesses through the CARES Act and staying on the path of our strategic plans, all while we’re trying to preserve hospital capacity to save lives.

Some departments are almost completely working remotely—probably about 70% of our employees.

I think we’ll see the impact for a while, due to furloughs which are a huge sacrifice to our workers in the city who are on furlough through October, which is a 10% pay cut. That saves us money, but it also results in 10% fewer hours of our workforce and a cut in services offered to residents.

The financial impact will last for years. Right now we’re looking at a $30 million shortfall in our budget for 2021, and it will likely be similar for several years. We’re in that space where you spend what you need to save lives and then ask for assistance.

I think this was a turning point in global culture as well. Things are going to have to change in our culture in terms of where and how we work, and how we continue to follow health rules. I don’t think the vaccine is going to be available to everyone in 2021, then there’s the matter of how many people will take it. So COVID is likely going to be part of our lives for a while. I think remote work will be part of the lasting impact, it has worked, our employees are still very productive. Right now we’re telling employees to work remotely at least till January, but it will probably go longer than that.

Luis and Brenda Navarro. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Luis Navarro, restaurateur (Lola’s, Social List, Portuguese Bend): Obviously, 2020 was, in my personal experience, the worst ever. We opened Lola’s in 2008 when the recession hit, but that was different, it was strictly a financial hit on our population. With this one, people are having a hard time grasping. There’s a virus running rampant and the government is trying to stomp the fire out.

In 2008, you could say it’s the owner’s fault by not offering specials or discounts to drum up business, but here we’re being mandated to close, that’s the biggest disconnect. We haven’t been able to wrap our arms around what’s going on. It’s tough when you’re ordered to close.

I understand what’s going on and I think most people do. You have to respect the virus, it’s Russian roulette if you don’t. But it’s hard to see Orange County and Pasadena open during Thanksgiving and having their customers on two-hour wait lists all weekend and over here we’re dead in the water.

The general consensus among everyone in the industry is there’s a strong possibility that the three-week closure is initial, and I think it’s done that way so people don’t freak out. A lot of us are seeing things still surging and we’re probably going to shut down through the new year and that’ll be the final blow.

The first time we were closed there were restaurants and bars that were able to stay sort of open through PPP money, but this time you’re exposed and once you start digging into your reserve money and wonder how far you can sink down this hole. We’re going on 13 years, you work your butt off and are able to create an emergency fund and at what point is it too much. I think that’s what people are asking, when to hit eject and let it go.

But I think people are going to be very optimistic, a lot of us are banking on the vaccine to start rolling out in the next few weeks. Hopefully by summer, people will start feeling comfortable and spending and jumping on a plane and flying to Europe. I think the hope is we’ll have a great rebound, with the new president. I guess the hope is that we’re able to have that springback, get that comfort back that we’ve become accustomed to as Americans. That’s what people are longing for.

But if things stay locked down for too much longer, Lola’s can make it, Portuguese Bend cannot, and Social List would be coming in and crashing and burning by the skin of its teeth.

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