Coronavirus response weakens local economy

Small businesses, entertainment venues, nonprofits may struggle to survive without customers coming through the door

By Reggie Ellis

TULARE COUNTY – Friday the 13th was a scary day for the local economy that only got more terrifying in the ensuing days.

The White House, Sacramento and health officials all agreed on recommendations to limit public gatherings to less than 250 people on Friday, which then dropped to 50 on Sunday and 10 on Monday night. Six Bay Area counties issued a “shelter in place” order which will remain in effect through April 7, something Gov. Gavin Newsom was encouraging other counties to do.

And that may be what Tulare County Public Health officials recommend after announcing the county’s third confirmed case of COVID-19 on Monday night at Kaweah Delta Medical Center. It was the third case in five days, the same five days that saw the closure of most county schools, local theatres, restaurants, fast food lobbies, bars and fitness centers. While school employees will continue to be paid by the State, private businesses and nonprofits are left grappling with the notion of making money without customers coming through the door.

“I’m very concerned for the business community and the community at large,” said Gail Zurek, president and CEO of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce. “Be thoughtful about your health and if you are sick stay home. But if not, continue shopping and support your community.”

The chamber has rescheduled its Impact Leadership Conference to Aug. 25 and canceled meetings of more than 100 people but will continue to meet as a board. On Monday, the Visalia chamber began sending out a survey to members to identify what services and support they need from the chamber, such as access to SBA loan information and economic resources.

Last week, the chamber launched visaliachamber.org/updates where residents can find information for businesses and the community. Businesses can email their updates to [email protected] to be included on the page. The chamber also launched a Loyal to Local campaign with a video, image, and a social media approach to supporting the local economy.

“We encourage Visalia to continue to shop and eat local,” Zurek wrote in a message on Monday morning. “While residents may feel more comfortable eating at home, we encourage you to order take out. Please shop local for goods and services. Our local businesses depend on this vital economic support to employ our neighbors and keep their doors open.”

As of press time, the Visalia Mall was staying open as one of the few places left to do, well, anything. Rick Feder, general manager of the Visalia Mall, said the mall and its stores are remaining open as a place to get out of the house, especially when it’s raining.

“People want normal things to do, so we are deep cleaning and disinfecting areas that are touched frequently in order to give them somewhere to go,” Feder said.

The Visalia Mall has track record of maintaining a 96% occupancy rate and proved it again in December when three new stores, BoxLunch, Hibbett Sports and Daniel’s Jewelers replaced three stores that were part of national chains declaring bankruptcies.

Roger Hurick, general manager for Adventure Park in Visalia, said he wouldn’t close the fun park as long as Disneyland remained open, but was shocked when the theme park closed its doors on March 13 for only the third time in its 64-year history. The first was following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the last was in 2001 following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Hurick then said he would remain open as long as the schools were open. Despite most schools announcing they would close for at least a week, if not a month, Adventure Park remained open on Monday. But Hurick wasn’t sure how long they could employ people without customers.

“We are disposable income for people and we don’t have the deep pockets like Disneyland to pay people for three weeks when we aren’t making any money,” Hurick said.

There is a bright spot for those who may have lost their jobs already. Grocery stores have seen record breaking days as people began hoarding hand sanitizer and soap, paper products, dry and canned goods as well as frozen food. The onslaught of overcautious overstocking has overwhelmed stores now looking to increase staff to meet the demand. Save Mart Companies, which includes FoodMaxx, Lucky and Save Mart stores, will be hiring as many as 1,000 people at its more than 200 stores in California and northern Nevada. The jobs include in-store positions, drivers and warehouse jobs. For more information on the company, please visit www.TheSaveMartCompanies.com.

EVENTS

The Visalia Convention Center was looking forward to longer days which meant more time for meetings and events as it heads into spring event season. Before the Tulare County Public Health officer’s and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recommendation to cancel all events over 250 people, the Convention Center had a full slate of March event that would have brought in thousands of visitors to the area. Here is a list of the number of people that will not be contributing to the local economy:

  • March 11: 700 people for a meeting
  • March 13: 800 people for 559 Fights #79
  • March 19-22: 500 people for a conference
  • March 20: 500 people for Calibre 50 concert featuring Banda Carnaval and Cuarto De Milla
  • March 24: 400 people for a meeting
  • March 26: 500 adults for the Visalia Chamber’s Impact Leadership Conference
  • March 27: 600 people for the Tulare County Office of Education’s Friday Night Lip Sync Contest
  • March 28-29: 2,200 people for a convention

“I hope we will recover quickly,” Visit Visalia executive director Nellie Freeborn said.

Visit Visalia is a collaboration of the Visalia Tourism and Marketing District and the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau (VCVB) dedicated to promoting tourism to the City of Visalia. Freeborn said they had not seen any major cancelations in the groups they cater to as of press time. She did say Visit Visalia was dialing back on their social media marketing for the city but will continue to make a push for people to come to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks.

“Traveling is the right thing to do as long as you are taking proper guidance and precaution,” Freeborn said. “When making decisions, be sure you are getting information from the people that are dealing with the facts, such as county HHSAs and the Centers for Disease Control.”

As travel bans continue to expand at home and abroad, there isn’t much left in terms of entertainment for locals.

Tulare County’s hub for live entertainment, the Visalia Fox Theatre, announced it was shutting things down for the month. The historic landmark announced last Friday that it would be canceling or postponing all of its remaining shows in March, including one show for a partnering nonprofit in the Sequoia Symphony’s “Colorful Arrivals” show on March 21.

“The well-being of our patrons, performers, and team members is our top priority,” said Vikky Escobedo, Executive Director of The Fox. “We’re closely monitoring the latest developments with an eye on our calendar. While we are disappointed to have to move or cancel these shows, we will resume operations as soon as we’re able to. We thank the community for its patience and understanding as we navigate this serious and quickly changing situation.”

The situation was a little more difficult for the Lindsay Community Theatre (LCT). Jim Kliegl confirmed that the Lindsay High School canceled its production of Bubble Boy and that the theatre has canceled its own spring play “Our Lady of the Tortilla,” which was scheduled to take the stage April 24-26 and May 1-3.

“The cancelations certainly don’t help but we are usually pretty happy when the plays break even,” Kliegl said. “The real loss is that we can’t present performance art to the community, something we believe is still important.”

Jim’s wife, LCT board president Janet Kliegl, said the community theater should be able to stay afloat through April but missing May could have a longer term effect. The end of May is when the Lindsay Children’s Theater will present “Frozen, Jr.” adapted from the popular Disney film. Janet said the children’s musicals are often sell out crowds because the entire family comes to see their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins.

“Some of the musicals sustain us through the year,” Janet said. “We have insurance, gas and electricity to pay and a very old building to keep up.”

NONPROFITS

In addition to not having much to do, there is an economic loss to people not attending events. Most local events are essential fundraisers for nonprofits, that rely on providing a place where they can share their message while funding their services.

“This will have a very large impact, especially on our smaller nonprofits,” Rosemary Caso said.

Caso is executive director of United Way of Tulare County, which acts as a clearinghouse for grant funding to find its way to nonprofits. She said most local nonprofits rely on fundraising events and donation campaigns for about half of their annual budget.

“No one is thinking about nonprofits right now because they are supposed to exist and provide services,” Caso said. “But anyway people can find to donate to them will be critical during this time.”

Caso suggested nonprofits take a page from Kaweah Delta Hospital Foundation’s campaign to focus on online giving to programs that help our most vulnerable populations while residents hold onto to their entertainment dollars as they stay at home.

“Nonprofits provide a lot of essential services in our county and they will need to keep donations coming in to provide those services,” Caso said.

Caso said large nonprofits will have an easier time surviving without fundraisers but may have to cut back on face-to-face services as employees gradually begin working remotely. Less employees working in an office can also make it more difficult for nonprofits to track the progress and benchmarks of their grants which are requirements of funding.

“Funding was given to ensure these services exist and it takes people to ensure that obligations are being met for those grants,” Caso said.

She also said many nonprofits will likely feel the financial squeeze from underwriting sponsors, who may not want to make their annual donation without the ability to advertise to a large group of people at an event.

“Some sponsors may say ‘keep the money as a donation’ because it is already part of their budget, but others may have more of an outreach or advertising focus and pull that funding,” Caso said.

While the nonprofit theatres have canceled everything through March, at least one nonprofit isn’t cancelling any events. Hands in the Community said it will not cancel one of its major fundraisers on May 1 at the Ridge Creek Golf Club in Dinuba. CEO Lester Moon, who is over the age of 60 and therefore among the highest risk populations to contract COVID-19, said he isn’t worried about the pandemic negatively affecting his organization.

“Unless people start dropping in the streets I’m not changing my habits,” Moon said.

Unlike most nonprofits in the area which are primarily funded through the state or federal government as well as private donations, Moon said most of his funding comes from a network of about 68 churches in Kings and Tulare counties. He said that funding has already fallen from last year as many churches and citizens shift their spending to candidates during the primary election season, which lasted from late November through late February. He expects giving to his organization to fall again this month after the Governor discouraged gatherings of more than 250 people, forcing larger churches to cancel worship services this month.

“Our goal is to neither under nor over-react,” Moon wrote on his organization’s Facebook page in response to the panic over COVID-19. “We do need to remember that we live in a broken world and illness is a part of that and we need to do our best to be reasonable.”

ENTERTAINMENT

From live theatre to the movie theater, at least a few local cinemas will be closed, with possibly more being announced in the coming days. On March 16, Regal Cinemas announced it was shutting down all 543 of its locations nationwide, including its location in at the Sequoia Mall and downtown in Visalia due to the pandemic.

“Any time, at any Regal, it’s our goal to provide a safe and healthy environment for our employees and guests,” said Cineworld CEO Mooky Greidinger. “At this time, we have made the difficult decision to close our theaters. We value our movie-loving customers and have no doubt we will be serving them again as soon as possible with a full slate of Hollywood blockbusters.”

Last weekend, ticket sales in North America hit their lowest levels since 2000, generating just $55.3 million between Friday and Sunday. Regal had previously announced on Friday that it would reduce its maximum capacity to at least 50%, along with AMC, which has locations in Bakersfield. AMC said its policy would last through April 30.

As of press time, Galaxy Theatres in Tulare and Porterville remained open and their websites displayed showtimes through Thursday, April 30.

Eagle Mountain Casino stated in a press release that they had met with the Tule River Tribal Council and Tule River Public Health Authority on Monday and decided to termporarily close the casino effective today.

“We are taking necessary precautions as advised by the CDC recommendations and in coordination with our Tribal Government. Neil Peyron, Tulare River Tribal chairman and Matthew Mingrane, general manager of Eagle Mountain Casino said in a letter. “The safety of our guests and team members is our utmost priority at this time. During the closure, our property will be thoroughly deep cleaned and sanitiezed by a professional cleaning company.”

Eagle Mountain said it is looking to reschedule the concert but March 20 tickets will not be honored because no new dates have been determined. Refunds are available at the point of purchase.

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