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Saturday, Jan 28, 2023
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Retail Disrupted

For the first time in more than two months, The Social Tap on Seaward Avenue in Ventura has a dining room full of people – half full of people, that is. The gastropub is open for dine-in service as Ventura County has rolled back non-essential business restrictions enacted in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. In late May, the region began allowing low-risk restaurants – not buffets or food courts – to serve customers in their dining rooms and retailers with exterior-facing entrances to offer in-store shopping. Social distancing rules still apply. According to Floor Manager Steven Lovio, The Social Tap is operating at less than 50 percent capacity, both for safety’s sake and to maintain compliance. “Total capacity before the shutdown was 280 people. Now full capacity is only 120,” he said. Fewer tables means longer wait times, he added, but diners don’t seem to mind. “That’s kind of expected at most restaurants open in Ventura County,” he said. The county announced the relaxed rules May 20, making it one of the first in the state to move to Phase 2 of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-step reopening plan. Lovio said since reopening on May 22, business has been slower than usual as a result of the lowered capacity, but “we’ve been pretty consistent.” The restaurant isn’t seating parties larger than eight, but the bar is open. Throughout the county, eateries are getting creative to make the most of their space. Several restaurants in Camarillo, Thousand Oaks and Simi Valley have been granted permission from city officials to serve customers in parking lots and, in Old Town Camarillo, even on public sidewalks, according to the Ventura County Star. L.A. County is progressing more slowly than Ventura, as the number of COVID-19 cases emerging daily in the region remains the highest in the state. To reopen, counties must submit documentation to state regulators showing they’ve achieved several pandemic response benchmarks. For example, hospitals must be able to accommodate a potential 35 percent surge in cases and nursing facilities must have a two-week supply of personal protective equipment. L.A. County moved into Phase 2 on May 26, lifting restrictions for restaurants and other low-risk retailers on the condition they meet the county’s safety protocols. Days later, officials extended the green light to hair salons and barbershops. According to the updated order of the County Health Officer, restaurants can operate dining rooms at a maximum capacity of 60 percent, but unlike Ventura County, must keep their bars closed. Low-risk retailers can open at 50 percent, and staff and patrons must continue to wear facemasks whenever possible. Gyms, bars and nightclubs, movie theaters and sports venues are still closed. Within the retail and restaurant sectors, reopening has been a scattershot endeavor. Some businesses – especially chains – were ready for in-store customers as soon as regulators allowed. Others have needed more time to rehire furloughed employees, assess capital needs and organize operational changes. Shopping malls The progression to Phase 2 is great news for indoor shopping malls, which are stirring back to life after 10 weeks of closure. Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield reopened its Los Angeles-area shopping centers beginning May 30 with Westfield Century City, then continued with Westfield Culver City, Westfield Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks, Westfield Santa Anita, Westfield Topanga and Village in Woodland Hills and Westfield Valencia Town Center on June 3. Panorama City Mall was supposed to reopen for in-store shoppers June 1, but things didn’t go as planned. According to Arturo Sneider, chief executive of developer Primestor, which owns the mall, protests nearby delayed the reopening. “The Los Angeles Police Department notified us and the county’s office that (attendees) are going to be looting and hitting the property. We had to kill our plans to reopen,” he said. Los Angeles Police Officer Rosario Cervantes of the Media Relations Section confirmed there was a protest in Van Nuys near the courthouse. It was the first such event to take place in the Valley after a week of protests throughout the country sparked by the alleged killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer May 25 in Minneapolis. Of the Panorama City Mall reopening, Sneider said: “We had it all worked out. Surprisingly, about 70 percent of the businesses were already coordinated and ready for opening with a bunch of protocols.” That included social distancing requirements, sanitization stations throughout the property and frequent electrostatic spraying of all public spaces. Sneider said reopening will depend on whether protests escalate to rioting and looting in the coming days. “We expect to see, I would imagine, 50 percent-type volume at least up until the (winter) holiday season. At least, that’s what we expected prior to the protests,” he told the Business Journal. Crucial in restoring the mall’s bottom line to sustainable levels is its food court. “We have a very successful food business in the mall. But we are limited, of course, to no indoor seating, which in a mall, means no seating at all,” Sneider said, referring to the county’s ban on gatherings of more than 100 people. In the meantime, he said the mall is designing a temporary food court arrangement that would allow for social distancing indoors. “We’re working with the Building and Safety Department and the Health Department to allow a reconfiguration of our food court area. We were always completely packed in the food court. Every seat was taken. We might have to spread that out in some way and work with the authorities to help us redesign that sooner than later,” he said. As L.A. retailers continue to reopen, they can look to neighboring counties for an early glimpse at how the sector will perform in the post-COVID-19 economy. What to expect North of Santa Clarita in Kern County, the Outlets at Tejon Ranch have been open since May 27. Barry Zoeller, senior vice president of corporate communications for Tejon Ranch Co., said he has heard from tenants that traffic so far has been even better than they had hoped. “We opened on Wednesday (May 27), and traffic has been up every day since. We heard from our retailers that both the numbers in their stores and sales projections exceeded expectations,” he explained. Zoeller reported that the people who have showed up to the outlets so far are there spending money, not just savoring the ability to go out. As of press time, around 20 of the shopping center’s 50-odd stores are open. Zoeller said the weekend of July 4 will be a big one for the outlets, as will back-to-school shopping – those stretches will inform the company’s expectations for the rest of the year. Tejon Ranch Co. is aware that many shoppers remain apprehensive of public spaces and the company has factored those fears into its assessment of the mall’s performance. “It’s not an ideal situation from a financial point of view, but it’s something we can weather,” Zoeller said. Sneider, of Primestor, said he thinks people are more eager than scared to go shopping again. “People are tired of being locked up in the house and being told when to go where and how to do it,” he said. “Significant progress has been made in how to manage people and traffic and cleanliness and sanitation. We’ll be strong in our messaging that we are going beyond the call on those fronts, and we do expect people will want to come back ASAP.” As for the pandemic’s long-term affect on consumer behaviors, Sneider said it will likely take “12 to 24 months to understand what the paradigm shifts are going to be.”

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