How will social distancing impact commerce?

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

How will social distancing impact commerce?With unprecedented closures and directives to self-isolate to help slow a coronavirus outbreak, the community is bracing for the impact social distancing will have on stores, restaurants and other public spaces.

Over the weekend, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered bars, wineries and pubs to cease operations. Restaurants and other public venues are required to reduce capacity to allow room for limited interaction among patrons.

Newsom’s previous directive to cancel gatherings of 250 or more was reduced once to gatherings of 50 or more, then again to gatherings of 10 or more. In light of that, many local institutions have released information about how this will modify their operations.

“As of March 15, we have taken the recommendations from the governor’s office, as well as California Public Health Department, and reduced all auditorium seating,” Kelly Walden, general manager of Ridgecrest Cinemas, said in a public statement Monday morning.

“Our largest theater will now only allow for 50 tickets sold, with our smaller theaters holding 35 and 30 tickets for each showing.

“We encourage guests to sit in groups with your family, but to maintain six feet distance from other non-family groups as recommended by the CDPH.”

Walden had already published an update last week that outlined heightened food-handling, cleaning and sanitization protocols at the theater.

At presstime three cases had been identified in Kern County. (See related stories, Page 1.) As the situation continues to evolve Walden said she will continue to monitor the development in order to balance safety with the availability of local theater access.

Ridgecrest Branch Library first canceled its in-person programming, then later this week closed its doors along with other county buildings.

Maturango Museum followed a similar path — first canceling public events, then closing its doors Wednesday evening “until further notice.”

The Historic USO Building, managed by the Historical Society of the Upper Mojave Desert, was among the first to shutter operations and cancel all events.

While healthcare officials are pleading for residents to cooperate with community efforts to reduce the spread of coronavirus, Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Tim Smith noted that local members are endeavoring to adhere to those guidelines.

The chamber is working with businesses to reinforce good hygiene protocol, as well as coordinating with employers on how to manage impacts to employees and operations under the current mandates.

“Throughout the coming days, as economic concerns are elevated, your Ridgecrest Chamber and Board of Directors would like to remind you of the importance of supporting your local businesses,” said Smith.

Patronizing local retailers and other establishments will help strengthen the community and mitigate negative impacts to service and operations, he said.

Smith noted that chamber leaders are also doing what they can to circulate the latest guidelines and advisories from government agencies.

“We recognize that the situation is very fluid, and we will remain in contact with local authorities and evaluate the situation daily to ensure the health and safety of our members, staff and the general public.”

Within the first few days of reduced operations, many businesses had already begun to express their concerns to the chamber, said Smith.

“I’ve been hearing from our contractors, our restaurants, our hotels,” he said.

So far, he said, the solutions for adapting have been left up to individual proprietors.

Hoteliers, for example, are developing a pamphlet for visitors that give information on what businesses and attractions remain open. Some restaurants have closed buffets, others have extended take-out options to include meal prep for pick-up.

Another popular suggestion circulating is for residents to buy gift certificates — which give proprietors money to keep them afloat, and offers individuals an opportunity to redeem them once protocols are over.

However, many contractors are reporting that scheduled work has been postponed or canceled altogether.

“One thing I am trying to reiterate for our community is that we can still support these businesses while abiding by social-distancing guidelines,” said Smith.

“I have one contractor who told me that he can make it maybe another week or two before he has to start laying people off.”

Smith also encouraged residents to shop locally as much as possible. “For the most part, our local stores still have what we need.”

Support has been pledged from the Small Business Administration in the form of low-interest loans.

However, Smith acknowledged, many businesses are not in a position where they can commit to paying back money, with interest, once the present storm has been weathered.

He directed business owners to contact Employment Development Department for information regarding employee leave.

“Employers experiencing hardship can also request up to a 60-day extension on state payroll reports, and a three-month delay on filing taxes,” he said.

“Right now, we have very limited information on what other forms of relief will be provided by the state and federal governments.”

Pictured: Ridgecrest Cinemas reduces capacity of its theaters to honor “social distancing” requirements. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-03-20