Under normal circumstances, South Pasadena would be enjoying the final lazy days of summer, basking in the optimism of a new school year and bidding farewell to friends and loved ones heading off to college.
But present circumstances are anything but normal as restrictions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic persist, the economy suffers and students return to their personal home study spaces. Even so, a prominent local booster organization continues to voice determination despite the health crisis.
“Our local businesses are not giving up,” said Laurie Wheeler, president of the 259-member South Pasadena Chamber of Commerce. “Our businesses are all across the board — some are barely hanging on, some are being true entrepreneurs, and they will do whatever it takes to survive.”
Some have also closed their doors for good, the result of the economy’s unpredictability. What is Wheeler’s familiar solution to such an unprecedented condition?
“Continue supporting our local businesses,” she said. “It’s my mantra.”
And it just might be working. The chamber is currently working with the city of South Pasadena on an al fresco program that would allow businesses to operate outdoors.
“And not just for restaurants, but for gyms, nail salons, hair salons — all businesses,” said Wheeler, who has been associated with the chamber for 15 years.
In an effort to slow a recent recurrence of COVID-19 infections, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health implemented or renewed restrictions on public gatherings. Currently, retail businesses are open, but with strict social distancing requirements. For restaurants, on-site outdoor seating is subject to six feet of distancing between customers’ tables and all employees must wear face coverings.
As businesses look to the outdoors for possible relief, the chamber is watching, too. The city also recently waived fees for operating on South Pasadena’s sidewalks.
“The business [that] is looking to use the sidewalk still has some work to do, but the fees have been waived and the process has been expedited and simplified,” Wheeler explained. “There is a relatively simple form that needs to be filled out. The Planning Department will get in touch with the business to make sure there is an acceptable site plan and it will then need approval.”
The city is also considering using portions of local streets for extra business space that would comply with county restrictions.
“The city is also looking at possibly converting a parking lane into outside space,” Wheeler said. “Our sidewalks are very narrow. It’s not like we have 20-foot sidewalks to work with. There is not a lot of space, and so we are looking at going onto the street.” The chamber is coordinating with municipal officials in figuring out the logistics of the proposal, which might be considered at the City Council’s meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 19.
Andrew Berk, a commercial real estate agent, is in line to become the chamber’s next chairperson in September. He said the group’s biggest accomplishment — and ongoing challenge — is to “keep our small businesses in front of people’s eyeballs.”
“We have to have actions behind our words,” said Berk, who along with his service to the chamber has also volunteered for the South Pasadena Education Foundation. “We need to keep promoting that our local restaurants and businesses depend on us. It is important that we all be a part of the solution here in South Pasadena. This city is so unique and special.”
Berk touted successful chamber initiatives aimed at addressing the pandemic’s harm to business. He pointed to a program in May that allowed businesses to order free door signs that provided information about the merchants to passersby. He also said the chamber hosts weekly meetings via Zoom that promote local small businesses. Berk said the South Pasadena Farmers’ Market, which is run by the chamber, has also been a boon to the local business climate.
“Every little bit helps,” said Berk. “It’s the snowball effect. This is a critical time right now.”
Wheeler encouraged community members to “stay in touch” with local businesses.
“Walk up and down the street, look online,” she said. “The businesses want to stay; they just need people to get on board. They do not want to give up.”
Wheeler then reprised her “shop local” message.
“People are still having birthdays, they are still having anniversaries,” she added. “Give gift cards from local businesses. They may not be having big parties, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be a big celebration. Shop local for people you would give gifts to anyway.”
Berk was similarly direct.
“We need to make more conscientious decisions,” he said. “We have a lot of small businesses here and they rely on the people who live here. South Pasadena is not a destination retail development. I think that if people know what challenges our small businesses face, they will be responsive.”
“Our businesses are not ready to throw in the towel,” Wheeler concluded. “They will not go down without a fight.”
Good thing, because that’s exactly what they have.