Since mid-March, when the San Fernando Swap Meet was closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sellers had been eagerly anticipating its reopening. Many have been selling there for years — even decades — in summer or winter; it was their main way of earning income.
For several weeks, rumors had been flying around on the Swap Meet’s Facebook page that it would soon reopen, only to have the actual date postponed again and again. The main issue was how to reopen in a safe way for sellers and the hundreds and (on the weekends) thousands of people who want to buy anything and everything from used tools and auto parts, to clothing and furniture.
There was even a rumor that the vast property on the corner of Arroyo Avenue and Glenoaks Boulevard had been sold, something San Fernando City Manager Nick Kimball emphasized was “definitely not true.”
“Robertson Property Group has owned the property since 2004 and I do not believe they have any plans to sell the property any time in the near future. Their business model is to hold land… they rarely sell,” Kimball said, in an email.
When many got the anticipated news, either by phone or through social media, that the Swap Meet would finally reopen on Tuesday, July 14, the vendors were happy. Because the Swap Meet is an outdoor venue, it was not affected by Gov. Gavin Newson’s edit to again shutdown various indoor businesses and stores because of the current increase of COVID-19 cases in the state.
Their elation soon turned to anger and dismay. Dozens of them were unable to secure one of the 426 spaces (nearly half of the 856 spaces normally available) through the online portal set up for reservations.
Those unable to get a spot accused the Swap Meet and its manager Albina Bravo of playing favorites, only notifying those vendors Bravo likes or renting their long-held spaces to newcomers for much higher prices, leaving them out in the cold.
Dozens of these vendors showed up Monday, July 13, at San Fernando City Hall to plead their case with Kimball, who told them the City could not intercede in an issue dealing with a private business.
Donaciano Zepeda, who’s been selling at the Swap Meet for 41 years, said a few weeks ago he received a message from the Swap Meet indicating they would be notified when the reopening took place, but “we were never informed.”
By the time he learned about it from another vendor on July 11, Zepeda said it was too late. All the spaces had been taken.
Zepeda wasn’t the only angered vendor.
“They (the Swap Meet) already selected friends and people close to them (for the spaces). We learned (about the reopening) from third parties. They told us they would respect our spaces,” complained Celeste Arriaga, who has been a vendor there for 20 years.
Luz Angelica Cruz, a single mother who depends on the Swap Meet for her income, said they understand that the Swap Meet had to reduce the number of available spaces given the COVID-19 pandemic, but added there were vendors who were able to rent two or three spaces.
“Everyone should have the opportunity to sell,” Cruz said. She claimed that she was never notified about the reopening, and said Bravo never answered her calls.
Vendors also complained they had already paid for the entire month of March when the Swap Meet closed, and wondered if the facility would refund the money for the two weeks it was not open. According to the Swap Meet website, there would be refunds.
In a phone interview with the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol, Bravo denied those accusations.
She said she had been answering dozens of calls to her personal telephone, and was willing to help any vendor that needed it.
She also said those vendors who were able to reserve spaces did so because “they were constantly checking the webpage,” and once the reservation system was active “they called each other. We didn’t even have time to notify anyone.”
“We can’t give priority to anyone,” Bravo said, before adding that some spaces were still available on Monday afternoon.
The vendors who came to City Hall, and others who have complained about this issue on social media and directly to the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol, say that is not true. They said the spaces only became available at noon on July 11, and by early afternoon had all been taken.
Bravo said she understood people who were not able to get a space this time were upset, but added they might be able to get spaces when they become vacant. She said that given the pandemic, “we don’t have any more spaces to give. We can’t have too many people inside (the Swap Meet).”
The Swap Meet opened on Tuesday with a number of safety and security measures meant to protect vendors and customers, Bravo said. They include having no more than three customers per space at any one time.
“We’re not going to open like other Swap Meets that don’t respect social distancing,” she said.
Vendors would be subjected to a temperature check before entering the facility, and vendors and customers were required to wear a mask. Vendors would also have to sanitize their area constantly and have hand sanitizer available.
A maximum of 200 people would be allowed inside the 17-acre facility at any one time, and once that capacity was reached, the people wanting to get inside would have to wait for others to come out.
She said four managers and San Fernando Police Department officers would be checking to make sure these rules were enforced.
On Tuesday morning, several vendors who couldn’t reserve a space held a protest in front of the Swap Meet entrance to continue the complaining they have been doing on the facility’s Facebook page.
“The process of reopening was done so unprofessionally. I really hope something better than an apology is done for those sellers who have been loyal to this Swap Meet for many years. Also, the website is not only impossible to manage, but not practical/accessible to everyone,” wrote Cynthia Zaragoza.
Jacky Gutierrez, who noted her family has been selling there for years, said a Swap Meet manager “contacted their ‘friend’” to let her know about the reopening.
“For those who have a ‘corner’ in the Swap Meet, they understand that this is unfair. We should all have been notified the same way at the same time, so that all of us had had the opportunity to buy a space,” Gutierrez wrote.
“The managers have their ‘favorites/friends’ and it is always unfair,” Gutierrez continued. “This cannot keep happening. I’d like to know why the sellers were not notified about this. We the sellers need answers over who were notified before the other vendors.”