Tier change having little impact on some businesses

By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

SOUTH LOS ANGELES — Although Los Angeles County moved into the least restrictive yellow tier on May 6, allowing businesses to either reopen or increase their capacity, some Black business owners in Leimert Park and along Crenshaw Boulevard say it’s business as usual.

“It’s great that the yellow tier will allow some businesses to reopen or to expand their capacity, but in reality, it does nothing for my business,” said Malik Muhammad, owner of Malik Books in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. “The increased capacity doesn’t mean anything because there is no foot traffic in the mall.”

L.A. County is the first county in Southern California to move into the yellow tier since the color-coded reopening system was established last summer.

The yellow tier of the state’s re-opening blueprint means bars that don’t serve food can now operate at 25% capacity indoors, stadiums at 67% capacity outdoors, theme parks at 35%, and gyms, card rooms, wineries, and breweries can now operate at 50% capacity indoors. Reaching this level also allows saunas and steam rooms to reopen.

After more than a year of some businesses being forced to close, while others struggled to survive due to the pandemic, owners of a restaurant, a bookstore, a gym, and a barbershop in the Crenshaw District said while the more relaxed restrictions can mean a big financial boost to some businesses, the new tier designation will not affect their bottom line.

Muhammad, who co-owns the Black-owned bookstore with his wife, April, said the yellow tier designation will not increase his business and that his focus remains on doing business online.

“The yellow tier means nothing to the tenants at the mall,” Muhammad said. “Nothing. We will continue to focus on our online business. It is the most effective way to stay in business and to meet people.

“The mall is trying to be sold. That has impacted traffic in the mall. The yellow tier will not generate enough traffic at the mall to make a difference. In October the traffic was at 20%. Now the yellow tier will allow more people. But, if you’re not driving traffic to the mall, it doesn’t mean anything. People aren’t coming here because they think they are selling the mall.”

Because of the uncertainty of the business at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, the Muhammads have opened a second store at Westfield Culver City.

“We opened up a store at the [Westfield Culver City], but the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall is the heart and soul of Malik,” Muhammad said. “We’ve been here since 1990. We want to stay. Even though there is a lot of uncertainty, we will figure this out.”

Muhammad said the Westfield Culver City store is doing “wonderfully.”

“The response there has been overwhelming,” he said. “It was a leap of faith. The yellow tier matters there because it means increased traffic. No matter what happens, we are resilient. Whatever future the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall holds, Malik Books wants to be part of the conversation.”

The yellow tier designation doesn’t mean restaurants can increase their capacity. They must remain at 50%, but they are now allowed to turn their televisions on both inside and outside. Once capped at 200 guests at a time during the orange tier, restaurants still must operate at no more than 50% capacity indoors. The minimum distance required between tables has been reduced from eight feet to six feet.

Tony Jolly, the owner of Hot & Cool Café in Leimert Park, said the new yellow tier designation will not affect his business, which he successfully navigated through the pandemic.

“My business is doing well,” Jolly said. “I don’t see anything changing. People are out now and spending and wanting normalcy, like pre-COVID.

“They are taking advantage of this time when there is no bad news coming through our screens about the pandemic getting worse. We will continue to operate the way we always have.”

Jolly, who opened up a second shop in Woodland Hills, said during the height of the pandemic, his business in Leimert Park never stopped or waned.

“We were really busy with the senior meal program,” he said. “I think for me, I realized how important our place was to the community. People were praying that we survived. It was overwhelming.”

Although gyms are now able to operate at 50% capacity, Laniecia Vicknair, owner of Thrive Health Lab in View Park-Windsor Hills, said the Black-owned facility will continue to operate at a limited capacity.

“I’m going to continue doing the same thing,” Vicknair said. “We are a gym. We are going to continue to remain cautious. We’re not changing anything.

“We are still staying six feet apart. We will change when everything can reopen to full capacity. We will open fully when everything is safe. We are still looking for better numbers. We know we will never get back to the way it was.”

Vicknair, a personal trainer since 2015, said she will continue to hold virtual classes and limited in-person classes. There is one at 9:30 a.m. Saturday class outdoors, limited to 15 participants. Inside the lab, only six members are allowed in a high-performance class with eight being allowed in a large space for yoga classes.

“It was rough last month,” Vicknair said. “Some people aren’t ready to come back yet. We’re seeing a slow return. Some people don’t want to come back and have to wear a mask. That’s hard, but it’s required. It’s a necessity.”

Vicknair said she will not require her members to be vaccinated when they return.

“I’m not in a position to require vaccinations,” she said. “It wouldn’t matter anyway because now there are bogus vaccination cards out there.”

Hair salons, barbershops, and other personal care services remain limited to 75% of capacity; masks are required except for services where customers need to remove their masks, in which case staff must wear a fitted N95 mask or a face covering with a face shield.

At N Spot Barber and Beauty Shop on Crenshaw Boulevard, owner Nakia Burks is trying to hold her business together. While the shop has six booths, only two stations are occupied.

The barbers who used to work there left to find other work when the pandemic hit. Burks said some clients learned to cut their own hair, while others are still nervous about returning.

“I gotta get back to being busy,” Burks said. “I still have a little bit of my clientele. Clients are slowly coming back. With 60% capacity, it helps. Right now we’re only going by appointment.

“Once we can open up fully, hopefully, we’ll be able to get back to being busy. A lot of people are still scared. I get it. Now I need some employees.”

Burks said since last year, she has had to “tough it out.” She made it through the pandemic because of donations from some of her clients, her savings, which is “now gone,” and an SBA loan.

“Now, I’m in debt,” she said.

With all of the re-openings due to the yellow tier designation, health officials stress that masks and social distancing are still required, as well as other safety protocols. Authorities want to prevent relapsing, which happened twice last year — in July and November — after previous re-openings.

On May 4, county Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told the Board of Supervisors that despite the eased restrictions, residents would still need to continue adhering to basic infection-control measures.

Ferrer said the eased restrictions “will still require safety modifications, including masking, distancing and infection control to keep reducing the risk of transmission.”

“These standard public health practices remain essential until we have many more individuals vaccinated,” she said.

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.