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L.A. County Business Leaders Urge Officials to Lift Restrictions on Reopening

Published on Tuesday, June 2, 2020 | 12:20 pm
 
LA County Supervisor Kathryn Barger

Leaders in the film, sports, theme park, business and restaurant industries Tuesday presented detailed plans for reopening to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, urging county officials to allow them to move as quickly as safely possible.

Members of the Economic Resiliency Task Force have been working for weeks with other industry representatives, including unions, on safety guidelines and best practices.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who chairs the committee, began by offering her support for peaceful protests in the name of George Floyd, whose in- custody death in Minneapolis has sparked demonstrations across the U.S. and around the world.

“This board is committed to protecting the right of protesters to exercise their First Amendment right,” Barger said. “I want to remind everyone that it is our vulnerable communities who are experiencing the most severe health and economic impacts of this virus. Family-owned businesses have the smallest margin of error to financially recover … More than 75% of projected jobs lost will be from those making less than $50,000 per year.”

Casey Wasserman, chairman and CEO of Wasserman Media Group, led off with a vision for the region’s major sports teams.

“The opportunity for teams to open their practice facilities and compete without fans in their venues is both eminently doable and culturally and economically vital to the county,” Wasserman said. “I would just equate it to opening a restaurant without customers. Playing baseball at Dodger Stadium with no fans is a quite straightforward proposition.”

The 26-page sports plan reflects input from every major venue and operator, all of whom are also working on individual plans, and is meant to lay out a baseline of safety guidelines, Wasserman said. Some details, like testing for players, will rely on collective bargaining between the players and management.

“Sports can play a part in our recovery both psychologically and economically,” Wasserman said. “We’re looking forward to see what I imagine will be the Dodgers playing baseball at Dodger Stadium and the Lakers and Clippers getting ready for a deep playoff run, hopefully in Orlando, and excited potentially (to see) some MLS soccer. Here’s hoping we don’t lose any more events to other parts of the country.”

It will be fall before the teams consider more specifically how to address fans in arenas, but Wasserman said venues were highly capable of controlling the flow of people and maintaining social distancing.

Task force members had different perspectives on the availability of personal protective equipment to keep workers safe. Wasserman said operators of sports venues are confident that they have enough supplies to support plans even Tuesday. Later, Jerry Greenberg, chief executive of the Sugarfish sushi restaurants, said easteries may need help from the county in sourcing gloves, for example, given “skyrocketing” prices.

Patrick Niemann, managing partner at Ernest & Young, presented on behalf of the broad business community, including corporate and manufacturing sectors. He asked for the county’s support in getting schools reopened and finding child care alternatives.

“While we can reopen business, that effort may be futile if stability is not also restored in families,” Niemann told the task force. “Our ultimate goal is really to restore jobs for working families and workers’ ability to support their families. This includes of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers on assembly lines, in factories, service roles and offices throughout our county.

“We are also urging your board to create, as soon as possible, a specific path with timeline and agenda to open up schools, day camps and other activities for the summer and fall,” Niemann said. “People cannot come to work if they have kids at home with nothing to do.”

In addition to the expected recommendations on social distancing, facility cleaning and hygiene, the business plan recommends remote work.

“For the well-being of their workforce and our broader community, employers are strongly encouraged (to implement) a policy to require employees who can work from home to do so,” Niemann said. “We also recommend that employers consider flexible work hours such as staggered shifts or rotating days for employees in the office or plant.”

Greenberg said he spoke for people working in hourly, management and ownership jobs in the restaurant business.

“Prior to COVID, there were about 350,000 people in our restaurant sector, a tremendously diverse group of people,” Greenberg said. “The better part of 200,000 people have lost their jobs … it’s a higher percentage of people in the small local operators.”

Some of those jobs are already coming back under a variance issued by the state last week allowing restaurants to reopen.

Greenberg said his group was offering “a plan that allows for the majority of restaurant operators to … get in the game. They may not have everything that they want … but I believe this plan … will bring back significant employment in the coming days and weeks and will grow with success over time.”

Greenberg noted that cities and the county have been working to expand sidewalks and parking lots to create more outdoor dining. He asked for the board to consider a series of other recommendations to help restaurants survive, including rent abatement combined with relief for landlords, liability limits related to COVID-19, and a statewide tip-related wage offset. Finally, he asked for help in reducing the time to get new restaurants open.

Donna Langley, chair of Universal Pictures, delivered a white paper from the film industry laying out plans for “incorporating best-in-class protocols to protect cast and crew” as filmmakers resume production.

Langley, who stood in for NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell early in the meeting as Shell led a town hall with NBC journalists, said labor leadership, studios and other producers are ready to go back to work.

“We urge the county to quickly review the white paper and appropriately revise or lift any orders that restrict our industry’s ability to produce film, television and digital media content with the appropriate safety protocols in place,” Langley said.

She called for the county to create “consistent and unambiguous” health orders for film production and theme parks across the city, county and state. If public health officials aren’t willing to lift all restrictions, Langley asked that certain pre- and post-production work be allowed to resume, including for example, set construction, video editing and music scoring.

“Since a majority of production halted in mid-March, our industry has demonstrated great innovation and resiliency when it comes to creating and delivering new content to audiences around the globe,” Langley said, pointing to new technologies and delivery platforms. “This … spirit and creativity that will enable us to safely and quickly resume production in this county.”

Karen Irwin, president and chief operating officer of Universal Studios Hollywood, said theme parks should not be last to open.

“Many people instinctively think that large theme parks with crowds would be the last thing you should reopen. While this perception is understandable, theme parks actually offer more controlled environments than places like beaches, gardens or even hiking trails,” Irwin told the task force. “We would like approval to begin the reopening process immediately in order to get our employees back to work … L.A. County parks will be ready to begin reopening between mid-June and July 1st.”

Screening of guests and physical distancing geared ride-by-ride will be enforced and barriers between workers and guests, like those found in grocery stores, will be installed where appropriate, she said.

About 60% of theme park guests are local and international guest visits are not projected to return to 2019 levels until 2023, according to Irwin, who said it was important to capture customers who might otherwise opt to go to casinos and other attractions reopening earlier in Las Vegas or Arizona.

Shanghai Disney has already reopened, as has Six Flags Wild Safari Park in New Jersey, while three Universal Studios Parks in Orlando and a Six Flags Park in Oklahoma City as set to open this Friday, she said.

“The theme park industry in California supports an employee base of more than 135,000,” ranging from front-line entry-level jobs to skilled technical positions, many of which are union jobs, Irwin said. “Our diverse workforce includes 70% people of color and is multi-generational.”

Supervisor Janice Hahn pressed the theme park team for a capacity number.

Shell said Orlando had engineered a 35% capacity limit based on specific limits by attraction, with some at up to 50% capacity and others staying shut altogether based on safety concerns.

“If you’re looking for a number … 35% is a good number to start, but it’s really going to depend on ride by ride, restroom by restroom, how we can open safely,” Shell said.

“It’s important to keep everybody healthy, but it’s important to also acknowledge … the need in society to get people back to work,” Shell said, adding that NBCUniversal chose not to furlough people, but cannot support that plan indefinitely.

Supervisor Hilda Solis said some of the requests by the task force would be challenging, while Barger highlighted the need for child care, saying she hoped the board could find some solutions.

Barger told the group that many of the recommendations presented had already been incorporated into public health guidance or would be soon.

“Moving forward, it’s going to be slow, but we’re going to reopen … responsibly and reopen in a way that’s going to put people back to work,” Barger said.

The task force’s next meeting is scheduled for June 16.

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