Businesses Felt the Strain of L.A. County’s Lockdown

May 29, 2020
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Author: Glenn Hunter

At Fraser Ross’s store called Kitson, which sells gifts and clothing on trendy Robertson Boulevard in West Los Angeles, receipts are just 15% of normal these days due to the coronavirus pandemic. Although Ross had recently been offering his cashmere sweaters, artwork and greeting cards online and via curbside pickup, it hadn’t been nearly enough to close the revenue gap.

Los Angeles County slowly begins to reopen.

Los Angeles County allowed big retailers like Walmart and Target to remain open during the pandemic, but not “non-essential” businesses, like Kitson, which were shuttered and limited to online sales in March before being permitted to reopen for curbside pickup the first full week of May. “They shouldn’t have been allowed to do that, when we couldn’t,” Ross told the Los Angeles Times, referring to Walmart and Target staying open. “We can practice social distancing in retail as well as anyone else.”

On May 20, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn reacted to concerns like Ross’s by penning a letter to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, asking him to allow small businesses deemed “non-essential” in L.A. County to reopen for fully operational in-store shopping, just like Walmart and Target. State, county and city officials responded six days later, saying they would allow all L.A. County retail establishments to let customers back inside their stores at 50% capacity, so long as they followed COVID-19 prevention guidelines. On May 29, restaurants and cafes were permitted to resume dine-in service, but other operations including nail salons, spa services, bars, theme parks, rec centers and indoor museums remain shuttered.

Related: Los Angeles: The Unfolding Economic Impact of COVID-19

Prior to the May 26 easing, Los Angeles had been among a handful of California counties under the strictest stay-at-home orders, with July 4 identified as the target for its wider reopening. And, L.A. County’s tough measures had not been imposed without reason. Officials say the county accounts for almost half of California’s coronavirus cases and, as of May 24, nearly 60% of its deaths. To be sure, Southern California in general is less densely populated than COVID-19 hot spots like New York City, and its residents are more reliant on cars than mass transit to get around – both factors that can protect against the virus.

But Los Angeles County in particular is home to large numbers of low-wage, blue-collar workers who are unable to telecommute and often live in tightly packed apartment homes. Many of these workers are black and Latino, populations that have reported high incidents of coronavirus infections nationwide. These residents are more susceptible to getting or transmitting the virus, in part because their communities have fewer grocery stores and pharmacies and rely more on mass transit.

The virus and the county’s stiff restrictions have taken a heavy toll on local business. Officials say about 1 million residents have filed for unemployment benefits in L.A. County since stay-at-home orders were first issued. That pushed the county’s unemployment rate to more than 20% and employment in the county to its lowest level since August 2010.

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Restaurants, Tourism, Transportation Hit Hard

The pain has been felt by a number of L.A.’s leading industries.

Eighty percent of jobs in the county’s restaurant sector have reportedly been lost, according to Kathryn Barger, chair of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Empty airports and underutilized hotels speak to turmoil in the travel and hospitality sectors. According to the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board, L.A. alone is expected to attract 22 million fewer visitors – 29 million, instead of the 51 million once projected – and lose $13 billion in spending this year because of the pandemic.

Caroline Beteta, president of the state’s tourism bureau, told The New York Times, “I don’t see California having a full recovery until the tourism and hospitality industry is able to come back online.”

Cargo volume at the Port of Los Angeles – the nation’s biggest seaport – has plunged 15.5% so far this year. “Non-essential” imports to U.S. retailers have fallen, as have exports to Asia, especially to China. The drop-off in port traffic affects the likes of truck drivers serving the port, as well as dock workers, who have seen their hours cut or their jobs eliminated outright.

Massive job losses have also hit the county’s once-robust entertainment industry, as theme parks have been shuttered and movie productions have ground to a halt.

For retailers, like Fraser Ross of Kitson, the shop on L.A.’s Robertson Boulevard, easing of the tough restrictions on small retailers on May 26 had to come as a relief. His biggest sales lately, he said, had been for pool floats and puzzles. “It’s not great, but every little bit helps in sales, from curbside to internet,” Ross told the Times a few days before the lockdown was relaxed some. “But I don’t know what the outcome will be at the end of this. It’s just like, it’s a new world …”

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