Story by Kailyn Forbes

Southern California is no stranger to the rollercoaster, in fact, it’s the foundation of our tourism economy, but while a physical thrill ride with its whiplash-inducing turns and stomach-churning drops can be fun, local businesses would like to disembark from the economic carnival that has been the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latest sharp turn occurred this month with the reimposition of mask mandates for inside activity. While Los Angeles County was the first to make the move, other areas experiencing a surge in Delta variant cases have followed suit and the Centers for Disease Control eventually recommended similar rules country-wide based on local case counts.

While the new rules do not restrict capacity for businesses, there are fears the mandate could impact what has been a solid economic recovery so far.

Consumer confidence has reached its highest level since the pandemic struck in March 2020, a key reason why retail sales remain solid as Americans shift their spending back to services — from restaurant meals and airline trips to entertainment events and shopping sprees.

Yet overhanging the rosy economic forecasts is the possibility of a resurgent coronavirus in the form of the highly contagious delta variant. The U.S. is now averaging more than 60,000 confirmed new cases a day, up from only about 12,000 a month ago. Should a surge in viral infections cause many consumers to hunker down again and pull back on spending, it would weaken the recovery.

Several local event venues said they are trying to keep their heads above water, even while their faces are covered.

“I think in the short term, we need to be comfortable with either asking people for proof of vaccination status, and then denying them entry, or we need to be able to mandate that people do wear masks in live event venues that are not outdoors”, said Daniel Tamayo of the soon-to-open new Broadway Comedy Club. “I think everyone is fond of using the phrase, ‘follow the science.’ I literally am happy to follow the mandates of LA County and the State of California, because those are what are going to keep my audiences safe.”

Damian Anastasio of Harvelle’s music club said reopening has been an uphill battle, but one that has been met with huge support from eager patrons.

“We were very excited to get back to work after so much time off,” he said. “It was kind of brutal to go through that and not have any income, so that was really rough. So it was really nice to get back to work and we opened with a bang and every night was like New Year’s Eve.”

He said staffing the venue has been a challenge with the two business partners covering almost every aspect of the club for the first few weeks and while the new mask mandates are less than ideal, he doesn’t see them reducing the desire for live shows.

“You know, we’re doing everything we can to comply in making staff wear masks. When entertainment comes off the stage, they have to put on a mask, when people come inside, they have to wear a mask, but as a club we feel it’s not a smart move on the city’s behalf,” he said. “I understand what the city’s trying to do but to us it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.”

Despite his initial hesitation to the use of masks in the club, Damian said that business is going well.

“Has the mandate affected our business? Minimal at best,” said Damian.

“When they lifted the restrictions, it was like flipping a light switch, we went from zero to ninety in a heartbeat.”

The new mask rules are driven by the spreadability of the latest virus strain. The delta variant was first detected in India but now has been identified around the world. Last week, U.S. health officials said the variant accounts for an estimated 83 percent of U.S. COVID-19 cases, and noted a 32 percent increase in COVID hospitalizations from the previous week.

The growing case counts have restricted the ability of entertainment venues to attract all of their customers back and continue their economic recovery. Some businesses had chosen to retain more strict Covid protocols even before the Delta surge.

Prior to the July 17 mandate, Evelyn Rudie, the Co-Artistic Director of the Santa Monica Playhouse, already required masks indoors. “So between June 15 and July 17, nothing changed for us”, she said. “We also have everybody sanitize their hands before they go in. Even though they don’t have to be six feet apart or even three feet apart, we don’t have any mingling, we’re not serving any food or any drinks, and none of our shows have intermission.”

She said the theater hopes the ongoing protocols won’t be necessary long term, but they’re prepared to keep them in place to stay open.

“We’re hoping that by the end of November, beginning of December, things will have calmed down again but it’s so impossible to tell with the variants and with numbers and other countries,” she said. “So we’re trying to stay on the safe side and so we have plans for both. If we can go back to normal, fine. If not, it won’t be any big deal for us and none of our customers have complained.”

While the Federal Government said this week that it will keep existing COVID-19 restrictions on international travel in place for now due to concerns about the surging infection rate, Tamayo said he’s holding out hope for a more robust vaccine policy that will allow the return of tourism in the near future.

“I really hope that we’re able to reach a vaccination point for tourists coming in to the LA County area that basically means we don’t have to have a mask mandate anymore and that we don’t have to have COVID protocols in place,” said Tamayo.

He said he’s hopeful the virus can be tamed to the point of being little more than an inconvenience like the common cold.

“We are looking forward to being a part of the city of Santa Monica’s entertainment and nightlife”, said Tamayo. “We’re really looking forward to being open and welcoming audiences to an indoor venue because if you look around at night, there are people wandering around with nothing to do, who are all asking themselves, is there nothing to do in downtown Santa Monica but eat and drink? Yes, we’re opening a comedy club for that reason.”

Anastasio is also excited to move past the current surge and provide some much-needed levity to the city.

“I hope, you know, personally, I can’t speak for my business partners, but I just wish everyone would get vaccinated and get past this COVID and move on,” said Anastasio. “I think we as a society need to rally together. As a club, we’re going to continue to book bands and pour drinks, and try to bring some joy to everyone’s life. That’s what we do.”