A newly announced plan that will allow California convention centers and other businesses to return more quickly to business as usual drew widespread praise from business leaders Tuesday, but the news arrived too late for one organization.
A trade group that was scheduled to hold its gathering at Anaheim Convention Center in August has shifted the event to Orlando, citing uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 restrictions on large gatherings in California.
The American Public Transportation Association had initially planned to hold the event Aug. 31 through Sept. 3 in Anaheim but has rescheduled it to run Nov. 7-10 at Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.
“The decision to relocate was necessary due to current California restrictions on large gatherings and the unpredictability of planning such a large event when it is unclear when these restrictions will ease,” the organization said last week, adding that every other state has issued guidelines for trade shows and conventions.
American Public’s decision came just days before Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday, April 6 that California is on track to move beyond its current COVID-19 safety blueprint. That would jettison the color-coded tier system, he said, so the state can begin looking to “fully reopen” California’s economy.”
“We can now begin planning for our lives post-pandemic,” Newsom said. “We will need to remain vigilant, and continue the practices that got us here – wearing masks and getting vaccinated – but the light at the end of this tunnel has never been brighter.”
Newsom designated June 15 as the turnaround point. Assuming the state’s vaccine supply is sufficient for Californians 16 years and older and hospitalization rates remain stable and low, every sector of California’s economy will be allowed to resume normal operations, he said, as long as public health policies remain in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
A new track for events
“Normal” will still be far from business as usual.
Anaheim Convention Center, which hasn’t hosted an event in over a year, will be able to resume operations beginning June 15 — but on a smaller scale.
“It will be a two-track system,” city spokesman Mike Lyster explained. “We’ll be able to hold events with up to 5,000 people through Oct. 1, although that would be small by our standards. An average event here would have 50,000 people and a large one would have 115,000.”
The second track beyond Oct. 1 would allow convention center operations to return to a “sort of normal,” he said.
“If an event organizer wanted to administer a program where everyone needed to show a vaccine card or proof of a negative test we could host more people,” Lyster said. “We’ve always looked at this as a transition year. That’s how 2021 shapes up.”
Lyster said Anaheim is grappling with a $108 million budget deficit for its current fiscal year, including about $20 million in lost convention center revenue.
Pasadena Convention Center has hosted first responder training sessions, jury empanelments and TV commercials over the past year, although those activities have been few and far between.
It also provided space to handle overflow patients from Huntington Hospital due to the COVID-pandemic.
“We’re currently hosting ‘America’s Got Talent,’ but there’s no audience,” said Michael Ross, CEO of Pasadena Center Operating Co. which oversees the city’s convention center, skating rink, civic auditorium and convention and visitors bureau. “Our hope is that the ice rink will be open within a couple of weeks for lessons.”
Ross said Newsom’s June 15 timeline for getting businesses back on track sounds good.
“We feel we’re going to be very busy for half to three-quarters of the year,” he said.
Allan Zaremberg, president and CEO of the California Chamber of Commerce, praised Newsom’s plan.
“Today’s announcement is especially welcome news as we enter California’s peak tourism and recreation season,” Zaremberg said in a statement. “As we all know, tourism, hospitality and restaurants suffered disproportionate economic hardships due to the pandemic shutdowns.”
Reopening Southern California
Los Angeles and Orange counties moved from the state’s red tier to a less restrictive orange ranking earlier this month, and 16 other regions, including Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, landed there Monday.
That allows a variety of businesses, including hair salons, museums, movie theaters, hotels and theme parks, to reopen with COVID-19 modifications.
Movie theaters, for example, can now operate at 50% capacity, or with 200 people, whichever is less. Restaurants must follow the same criteria, and wineries, breweries and distilleries can operate outdoors at 25% capacity, or with 100 people, whichever is fewer.
David Houston, who co-owns the Barney’s Beanery restaurant/bar chain with locations in Pasadena, West Hollywood, Santa Monica, Westwood and Burbank, said it’s been a tough go to keep his operations running.
“June 15 is too far away,” he said. “This pandemic is essentially over.”
Houston was forced to lay off all of his workers when COVID-19 first took hold last year. When restrictions were later eased he brought back about 20% of his staff, but that was barely enough to keep things going.
Many employees didn’t want to return to work because they were receiving hefty government benefits while being unemployed, he said. The restaurants are currently operating at 50% capacity.
“That’s not sustainable,” Houston said.
Regal one of the nation’s largest movie theater chains, opened six of its Southern California theaters last week in Los Angeles, South Gate, West Covina, Temecula, Irvine and Santa Clarita and additional theaters set to reopen this month and in May.
A coalition of 134 California tourism officials, business owners and labor groups sent a letter to Newsom last month seeking guidelines for the reopening of convention centers.
They cited a pair of studies from Oxford Economics that said California business meetings, trade shows and conventions accounted for $66.1 billion in direct spending and 457,000 jobs in 2019.
The latest data from the state Department of Public Health show California has seen a total of 3,583,830 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 58,541 reported deaths and 20,267,689 vaccines administered.