Business (Not Quite) as Usual

Christina Bernal, president of the Mall Merchants Association and general manager of Throwback Junction.

Cassandra Minton, owner of the Bleu Full Service Salon in Sylmar, reopened her shop last week after nearly three months of being closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When she did, she stepped into a whole new world of doing business.

Minton provides women’s hair services, and regular makeup as well as permanent makeup. An associate at her salon cuts and styles men’s hair. Before the pandemic, on any given day Minton would work on two or three clients at a time depending upon the complexity of their beauty procedures. Today, temporary government regulations allow her to work on only one client at a time. With each client also comes a lengthy safety procedure both before and after they come in for their appointment.

“(The customer) calls me from outside and I let them know when I’m ready for them to come in,” Minton said about each client visit. 

Each client is told to wear a mask that loops around the ears so that it won’t hinder the hair procedure. Before coming inside, the client must allow Minton to take their temperature. Once inside, the client is told to wash their hands before they sit down to get their hair done. Then Minton goes to work, taking great pains not to touch the client’s face during the procedure.

Once the client leaves, Minton undergoes an elaborate cleanup regimen. The work station is cleaned and disinfected. The shampoo bowl is disinfected. Each cape that has been around a client’s neck must sit in water that is 150 degrees for 25 minutes before being washed. The bathroom must be cleaned and doorknobs and light switches must be disinfected. All tools must be cleaned with Barbicide, a state-mandated disinfectant chemical.

Then she is ready for the next customer—but only one customer.

Minton said that these days she works on just three or four customers a day as compared to the six-to-ten people a day she would work on before the pandemic. That means volume and revenues at her salon are less than half of what they were just a few months ago.

Minton is not alone. This is the new abnormal for many local businesses that are ever so slowly reopening, after several industry sectors were given the go-ahead to do so by state and county officials in the past few weeks.

According to officials who are tracking reopenings, some retail, restaurant and other service businesses have reopened, but other business owners are being very cautious and still “trying to get ready” so they can implement proper safety procedures when they resume operation.

This is true particularly in the restaurant sector. “A lot of them aren’t open yet,” said Nancy Hoffman Vanyek, president and CEO of the Greater San Fernando Valley Chamber of Commerce, which covers a wide swath of territory in the Valley.

Many business are still trying to obtain enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to stay open longer hours while still being safe, Vanyek said. There have been other complications, too. Although businesses had been pushing to reopen, the actual authorizations to reopen came rather quickly with little or no warning, she said, adding that they didn’t expect the authorization would come as soon as it did.

Complicating matters was the George Floyd tragedy in Minneapolis that sparked widespread anger and protests globally. Nearly all protests have been well-organized and peaceful; but a few, like one recently in Van Nuys, escalated into looting and destruction of property. This has made some Valley business owners a bit jittery about opening their doors.

“Spirits were up before all the protesting started,” Vanyek said, regarding the go-ahead for restaurants to reopen for inside dining in late May. But almost on that very same day of the notice, the protests began, and it quickly dampened the hopes as well as postponed the successful relaunch by some owners. Many boarded up their windows and chose not to open, even after being given the “green light” to do so.

According to Los Angeles county officials, currently all restaurants and retail businesses are again allowed to have inside store sales or dining.

Hair salons and barbershops can open with safeguards in place. Retail businesses are limited to 50 percent of capacity and restaurants 60 percent. Hair stylists and barbers may only serve one client at a time. Masks must be worn at all businesses except for when eating. Bar areas are still closed. Reservations are encouraged.

Nail salons remain closed as are spa services including massage, facials and waxing. Hair salons that also do nails must temporarily discontinue that service.

The situation has become critical for some owners that provide those services. The California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative has established a fund to provide emergency assistance to manicurists. For more information or to donate to the fund go to https://www.cahealthynailsalons.org/donate

On Monday, June 8, new state guidelines were released allowing some counties in California — including Los Angeles county — to reopen movie theaters, although it is up to the individual county to give the go-ahead and capacity will be limited to 25 percent.

Officials have also released guidelines that could allow gyms to reopen in the state as early as June 12. When a final go-ahead is made to reopen, several safety precautions would need to be in place at the fitness facilities.

For the local restaurants that have reopened for inside dining, business is quite different. Customers are coming in to dine but capacity limits are also limiting revenue for the establishments.

“It’s not that good but it’s not that bad. With the situation, we’re OK,” said Betty Gutierrez, whose husband Jose owns Los Tres Hermanos restaurant in San Fernando. They have opened their business for inside dining and she is trying to stay optimistic.

“We’re hoping everything gets better and people start coming again,” she said.

They are serving customers by using every other table, leaving six feet of space between them. All employees wear masks, with some — including the dishwasher — wearing protective shields. Customers are asked to wear masks except when eating. They are serving alcohol but the bar is closed. Employees sanitize tables after each customer leaves.

“We’re doing everything possible,” Gutierrez said.

But revenues are less than half of normal, she added. “People are scared to go out for dinner,” Gutierrez said, noting that the mandated reduction to 60 percent of capacity has also contributed to a decline in revenue.

Gutierrez said the restaurant is operating with less than half of its normal staff, due to the limited capacity and the fact that some employees wanted to stay on unemployment and not come back to work just yet. They do have enough staff to function properly at reduced capacity, she said.

Over at Hanzo Sushi, a new business in San Fernando, the safety routine is much the same — masks, and customer tables spaced six feet apart. The tables are sanitized throughout the day, being wiped down after each customer exits. Counters and cashier equipment are wiped down frequently, Manager Adrianna Gurrola said.

The sushi bar is open with limited seating.This restaurant has a built-in patio area that makes outdoor dining possible.

Gurrola said that her restaurant had just opened for business on Feb. 17, before having to shut down in March without even having a grand opening. But the business hung in there, offering delivery and takeout service the past few months.

“Within a couple days of shutting down we had to figure it out,” she said. “As time progressed we found our rhythm.”

But the takeout revenue was only about 10-15 percent of what the business would have earned with in-restaurant dining, she said.

The restaurant reopened for dining on June 4, and on June 5 the restaurant’s revenue had tripled from the days of only serving takeout, Gurrola said.

“The community has been very good to us, the residents of San Fernando and even outside of San Fernando,” she said. “As a brand new establishment in the community, everybody is always curious.”

She said customers are understanding about the social distancing and other safety requirements in the restaurant.

“They understand that we’re all in this together,” Gurrola said.

To boost seating capacities and revenue at local eateries, the San Fernando Mall Merchants Association and the San Fernando City Chamber of Commerce are asking City officials to implement a pilot program for outdoor dining expansion onto sidewalks, loading zones and parking spaces, according to the organizations’ officials. The city of Los Angeles offers a similar program.

“We were hoping that they (the city) could make it something that can be permanent,” said Christina Bernal, president of the Mall Merchants Association and general manager of the Throwback Junction retail store.

Bernal said that she hoped that the program could eventually expand to the closing of streets on a Friday or Saturday night to allow pedestrians to walk around and visit businesses.

“When you walk the mall you definitely see more than when you are driving through it,” Bernal said.

San Fernando City Manager Nick Kimball said the city council has asked him to come up with a sidewalk dining program by June 15. This would allow restaurants to apply for “encroachment” permits to allow dining on a portion of sidewalks while still allowing room for pedestrians.

“It should be a relatively simple process,” Kimball said.

The use of private parking areas for dining spaces would require more study for safety reasons because diners would be sitting in areas where cars usually are and the dining areas would be using parking spaces, he said.

Kimball added that City officials are looking into closing San Fernando Road at the Mall on certain days this summer to encourage more pedestrian traffic for restaurants and retailers.

Retailers are open locally, and Bernal said the Throwback Junction store of vintage and new fashion that she manages opened for in-store business on May 29. Foot traffic was good at the beginning but tapered off after the violence in other areas, and during the local curfews.

“That kind of deterred people, I believe, from coming out,” she said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

Business has been very slow for the many bridal shops in San Fernando.

“The bridal shops are open but nobody’s coming in because there are no weddings going on or quinceañeras going on,” Bernal said. “When you walk the mall there is nobody in any of their stores.”

There are still prohibitions of large gatherings due to the coronavirus. But Sandy Silva, president of the San Fernando City Chamber of Commerce, said there may be a silver lining in all the business disruption caused by the pandemic. She said that some of the older businesses in town have been forced to adapt to technology which previously had not been comfortable for them.

“They are getting used to social media platforms and ordering online and delivering,” she said. “It’s not going to work to just sit there and wait for the pandemic to be over. You’ve just got to push through.”

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