LOS ANGELES – As the number of coronavirus cases continue to spike in Los Angeles County, industry leaders Tuesday urged county officials to safely get more residents back to work and college students back to school.
In a meeting of the county’s Economic Resiliency Task Force, members warned that a lack of clarity about health guidelines or a repeated pattern of closing and then reopening businesses could cripple some sectors.
Scaling back in the face of a surge of cases makes sense, said Linda Griego, who represents small business owners, but she warned against a broader rollback.
“The worst thing we can do is a yo-yo of opening, closing, opening, closing. We will just end up with permanent closures,” said Griego, CEO of a business management company that bears her name and former chair of the MLK Community Health Foundation.
The task force includes all five of the county supervisors. On Tuesday, representatives presented their detailed recommendations for safely managing an economic recovery of sectors including small businesses, commodities and goods movement, education, and infrastructure, development and construction.
Leaders repeatedly said they were committed to prioritizing employee and customer health and expressed optimism about the willingness of individual players to follow whatever guidelines the county sets.
However, Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she has seen widespread non- compliance from businesses already up and running.
“Everywhere I go … businesses are not compliant. They are not taking all of this seriously, or they’re taking an enormous amount of guff from their customers or clients about how … they don’t have to wear a mask or they don’t have to wear a mask outside,” Kuehl said. “How can these industry sectors themselves help us not to have to close them back down again?”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said she believed the vast majority of business owners were willing to follow the rules and said she has told her constituents not to spend their money at retailers and restaurants that don’t comply.
“Are there bad players out there? Absolutely,” Barger said. “They ruin it for all the ones who are investing … in reopening … if you walk into an establishment that is not complying, you need to stand tall and report it to public health, but also to not patronize those places.”
Griego said more education and outreach is required to reach small business owners.
“The seriousness of this pandemic hasn’t reached everyone,” Griego said. “I do think that small businesses are trying desperately to comply.”
The same financial imperatives that apply to businesses apply to colleges and universities, which need to open soon, Biola University President Barry Corey told the task force.
“Our recommendations focus on a healthy return to campus this year,” Corey said. “Should these colleges and universities not resume face-to- face education in the fall, the economic strains on many of our institutions could be damaging or worse.”
Getting students back into campus residences will ensure a safer environment than many are living in right now, Corey argued, noting that some have crammed into off-campus apartments.
As he and others laid out safety plans that include protocols for masks, social distancing and cleaning, they said a sense of certainty was key to any successful recovery, and that colleges, developers, port operators and small business owners need a clear set of guidelines they can count on.
Business leaders are also counting on the county for other forms of support. Griego asked for increased disaster funding and more grant and loan programs, suggesting that the county consider interest-free options. The county could also streamline building and permit processes to make it easier for all small businesses to make use of sidewalks, easements and parking spaces, she told the task force.
“Much more is needed to give small businesses a fighting chance to recover and contribute to overall economic recovery,” Griego said.
The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles were already suffering the effects of a global trade war and dramatic supply-chain disruptions when COVID- 19 struck and are critical to the region’s recovery, Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, told the task force.
“The positive economic impact to Los Angeles County from this sector is broad and profound,” Cordero said.
Investment in clean technology, workforce training and export initiatives is required to stimulate good paying jobs in the commodities and goods movement sector, he said.
“It is essential that we remain open and operating,” Cordero said.
A report on infrastructure and development listed $100 billion in planned local projects. Fran Inman, senior vice president of Majestic Realty and former chair of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said the list represents a huge number of potential jobs. But many projects have been put on pause, some for lack of financing, she said, urging the county to consider creative public-private funding ideas for shovel-ready projects.
When it comes to affordable housing in particular, “we can’t wait for the recovery, we’ve got to keep our full-court press on,” Inman said.
She asked the county to reevaluate zoning ordinances given changes in the retail sector accelerated by COVID-19.
One timely opportunity Inman highlighted was to build out a best-in- class telecommunications infrastructure.
“The demand for connectivity has never been higher,” said Scott Longhurst, government affairs manager for Crown Castle International Corp. “It is incumbent upon the private and public sectors to ensure that all the citizens of Los Angeles county have access to this infrastructure.”
There are $2.5 billion worth of telecom projects budgeted for the county over the next 18-24 months that could provide an opportunity to train thousands of residents for new jobs, according to Longhurst.
He asked the county to create a regional permitting process to fix what he characterized as a patchwork of regulations and finalize a pending wireless ordinance so that operators know what standards they need to meet.
Leveraging government buying power to purchase personal protective gear would fill a need mentioned in several of the reports from 13 sectors that have presented plans to the board over the last several weeks.
The board has already approved a plan to buy three million masks within the next 90 days, but Supervisor Hilda Solis said efforts to get more personal protective gear into the hands of workers remain haphazard.
“If we don’t have a workforce prepared and healthy and … put safety first, I think we’re going to be fooling ourselves,” Solis said.
Supervisor Janice Hahn suggested that the county consider stockpiling protective gear for future emergencies.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said the county was at a critical inflection point in terms of the spread of COVID-19 but also highlighted the massive numbers of unemployed Angelenos who need the county’s help.
“These sectors, along with essential workers in health care and food services are largely supported by the hard work and sacrifice of workers from communities traditionally of color,” Ridley-Thomas said. “We need to view this through a lens of equity … I think we have … a moral obligation to not only ensure that we protect these essential workers but that equity is baked into our path forward.”
A copy of a comprehensive report reflecting the work of the various sectors and published by the Office of Emergency Management is available at http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/supdocs/146799.pdf.