Six months later ...

A look at the economic impacts of COVID 19 restrictions

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Six months later ...People say hindsight yields 20/20 vision. But so far, our vision in 2020 seems to be rife with precedents impossible to calculate in real time.

From a public health perspective, Ridgecrest appears to have been spared the acute losses experienced by some communities. In Kern County, about 1 in 28 residents has tested positive for the virus. In Ridgecrest, that figure is about 1 in 234. While the broader region has experienced about 369 deaths, those in Ridgecrest remain in the single digits.

The financial impact to Ridgecrest may be lower-than-average, as well. With the majority of working residents retaining employment on the base, or in other essential (and often government-funded) sectors, most families were able to collect wages without disruption or loss.

While the passage of time may facilitate a better ability to measure the impacts of COVID-related closures, even a cursory glance reveals damages on the commercial landscape.

Many business owners note that dealing with a pandemic on the heels of massive earthquakes make the impacts difficult to discern.

Additionally, many proprietors note that it is difficult enough to try and adopt the onerous requirements to promote health and safety without inviting the scrutiny that comes with media attention.

So far, at least two restaurants have closed their doors for good. Another has closed off its dining room, and plans to limit their offerings to pick-up and delivery moving forward. One gymnastics academy has closed down. Gyms, bars and other venues that have not been allowed to reopen — even at partial capacity — remain at risk.

Among those is Ridgecrest Cinemas, which has only been allowed to seat patrons a handful of days since March.

“I think businesses are not going to return to normal — ever — as long as [Gavin] Newsom is governor,” said general manager Kelly Walden. “There are always new restrictions, new rules, new requirements — the benchmark just keeps getting higher and higher.”

Kern County learned two weeks ago that our case and positivity rates are low enough to allow moving into the “Red Tier,” which relaxes restrictions and would allow restaurants, theaters and other venues to re-open indoor operations at 25 percent capacity. Days later, Newsom introduced an adjustment that inflates the numbers for counties that test below the state average — putting the transition out of reach for Kern.

“Let’s say we did move to that tier, and sold out 85 percent of our shows at 25 percent capacity. Would that really be enough for us to stay open?” asked Walden.

“We don’t think that shutting down is an option. It would hurt our owners, our employees and our community.”

She and her staff have continued to offer drive-through concession sales, drive-in movies and other promotions that generate a small revenue stream.

“Obviously, everything helps. But in any given month, we have a minimum $38,000 in bills. I can’t make that up selling popcorn curbside.”

Walden said that she and her team are still doing everything they can to re-open, but she hopes that the community continues to support them so that they survive long term.

Not all businesses report the same dire obstacles. Many restauranteurs have reported steady sales, despite the loss of indoor dining. A handful of restaurants have modified to include outdoor seating — which has increased popularity for some eateries.

A few mom-and-pop shops also noted a boost in sales revenue when residents received their stimulus money and income tax returns.

“At the very beginning of the pandemic, we were definitely negatively affected by restrictions,” said Ann Rizzardini, owner of Red Rock Books.

“When the lockdown was over, though, business picked right up and has actually been even better than usual.”

Rizzardini was able to weather closures through temporary layoffs and other cut-backs, but slowly but surely her operation has returned to wholeness.

“We have tried to remain flexible,” she said, accommodating different preferences and levels of concern in her clientele. “We’ve been focused on figuring out what our customers want during this time, and been trying to deliver that.”

However, having thousands of employees working from home has had unexpectedly harsh impacts on some industries. Local dry-cleaner operators saw demand for their services plummet when closures hit.

Other services, such as stylists, have not been allowed to operate (until recently) in spite of that demand.

“We know that many of our members have had to dramatically cut back on staff, shift the focus of their operations, or even close their doors,” said Tim Smith, executive director of the Ridgecrest Chamber of Commerce.

He corroborated reports that many business owners have been shy about broadcasting their difficulties for fear of being reported for failure of complying with increasing mandates.

“Back in May, our board decided to reach out to individual members to find out how things were going, and what kind of support we might be able to offer,” said Smith.

“It was clear that many were suffering, but I was pleased to discover that many were able to adapt by thinking creatively about what they offer. Look how quickly restaurants made accommodations to allow patrons to sit outside. I think those kinds of adjustments have allowed some people to survive.”

He said that jewelry, electronic, large-appliance and bike shops have also reported an uptick in sales — even a difficulty in finding the product to meet the demands.

“One thing I want to stress here is the importance of shopping locally,” said Smith. “With so many people at home, it’s easy to order from Amazon. But it is almost as simple to walk in or call your local stores. If we want these local businesses to survive, even thrive once again, that will only happen with our support.”

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One day, we hope that proprietors who are reluctant to tell their stories during times of such heightened controversy will be able to come forward with accounts of their losses and triumphs. In the meantime, thank you for those who are supporting the community in this hour of need. —Ed.

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Pictured: Pictured is a Balsam Street renovation, completed shortly before many small businesses were closed to indoor operations. — Photo by Rebecca Neipp

Story First Published: 2020-10-02