Photo by Brittany Hendricks
It’s now been seven weeks since Long Beach’s “Safer at Home” order went into effect on March 19, and with testing capabilities increasing and hospitalization rates falling, the city is looking towards a measured, incremental re-opening of specific sectors of the community.
Last week, Governor Gavin Newsom outlined a four-stage plan of what a re-opening of California’s economy might look like. While the state is still in the first phase, titled “Safety and Preparedness,” some meaningful changes are expected to come soon. According to the state’s Resilience Roadmap, that would include “creating opportunities for lower risk sectors to adapt and re-open.”
That announcement brought optimism to small business owners who have been through weeks of stress and lost business. Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia indicated that changes could be imminent during his address on April 27, hinting at short-term plans to re-open at least some segments of the local economy.
“We are weeks, not months, away from some meaningful changes to our stay-at-home order and guidelines,” Garcia said. “These meaningful changes will allow us to get back to enjoying more of our outdoor spaces, getting more folks back to work, and opening up some additional locations for people to enjoy.”
Garcia later expanded on the types of locations that could be re-opened in the weeks ahead.
“How do we reopen, for example, small fitness studios?” he said. “I still think it’s still going to be a ways away before large gyms are able to open up, but what if you are doing one-on-one training at a distance? Or what if you have a small class of four or five individuals and you can physically distance? Or a small yoga studio that puts in place some distancing. That’s another industry area cluster that we’re looking at.”
Starr Bunch is the owner and operator of Five Starr Pilates & Fitness in Bixby Knolls, and she has taken those comments as a call to action. As soon as her business was forced to close, Bunch aggressively pursued COVID-19 relief funding for small businesses, which has helped her weather the shutdown, but she’s eager to get back to serving her clients.
“When (the shutdown) first happened it scared the living daylights out of me,” said Bunch. “The next day I started applying for everything under the sun, and we luckily got an EIDL loan, an SBA loan, and I was approved for a loan with the city of Long Beach Economic Development Department. So those things will float us and get us through all of this, but how do you stay open? It’s not just about opening—that doesn’t mean that everyone that was coming before this are going to come back. Some people are really afraid, and rightfully so.”
Bunch realizes that in order to bring her business back to full speed, she’ll need to make some structural and procedural changes at her studio. Not only to meet the city’s eventual safety guidelines for businesses like hers to re-open, but also to make sure her clients feel comfortable and safe returning to her studio.
“Once we got the funding secure and in place, I was thinking of ways we can make this place better when we do re-open,” she explained. “And we started thinking about all the things I’ve wanted to do in here that we could never do before because we’ve always had clients in here.”
In addition to some cosmetic improvements to the studio, her focus has been preparing the studio for increased social distancing and improved sanitization practices. She has already removed two stationary bikes from her cycling room to ensure six-foot distancing, installed air sanitizers in the studio, converted her office into additional storage space, and has removed communal seating and storage areas in favor of individual ottomans at each machine.
Furthermore, Bunch plans to increase the amount of time between classes to limit cross-traffic, will sanitize equipment before and after each class, and is prepared to have clients wait outside on pre-marked spaces in order to decrease crowding in the studio. She’s hopeful that these changes will leave her business in compliance with the impending safety requirements for re-opening businesses, and that her clients will be receptive to their new experience at the studio.
“It’s tough when you’re talking about a small space so you’ve got to get creative,” she said. “I think some people won’t like it, but many people will be open to change.”
Bunch is certainly not the only business owner looking to re-open her doors, but it’s still going to take time. While emergency relief funds have helped many small business survive the shutdown, there is still a lot of uncertainty about the weeks and months ahead.
“I think everybody is in the same boat. It’s a wait and see,” said Blair Cohn, Executive Director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association. “The funding that has come in lowered the stress level a couple notches so business owners can pay their rent or readjust their business plan, but now the concerns of course are when—when can they reopen and what will it look like for them?”
Cohn applauded the community’s efforts to continue supporting local businesses during the shutdown. He emphasized the importance of shopping locally in the months ahead to continue to help businesses recover.
“The neighborhood has come out in a very impressive and heartwarming way,” he said. “We’ve seen great support and I personally have to remind people over and over again, you just have to do it. That’s what will get us to the other side here and not see a major collapse in the business district.”
The timeline for business owners like Bunch and others to be able to re-open their doors remains unclear, but there’s growing optimism that with proper distancing and sanitation efforts, they could be back to business soon—even if it’s not business as usual.