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Westwood businesses struggle to make ends meet under pandemic regulations

The majority of businesses in Westwood were forced to modify or suspend their services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While some were able to easily make the transition, it is likely that others have served the UCLA community for the last time. (MacKenzie Coffman/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Eve Gross-Sable

June 10, 2020 5:27 pm

Many Westwood Village businesses are adapting to limitations inflicted by COVID-19, but their futures remain uncertain with no confirmation of UCLA reopening.

UCLA’s shift to online instruction and statewide stay-at-home orders decreased the number of potential customers for businesses.

Andrew Thomas, executive director of the Westwood Village Improvement Association, said long-existing regulations have cost businesses money and energy, discouraging some businesses from operating in Westwood.

“Before the shutdown, we were, as a district, trending in the right direction, albeit slowly,” Thomas said. “Then COVID-19 hit and our economy shut down almost entirely. It’s just such a unique time right now, I don’t feel that the dust from this economic bomb is actually going to settle for several months, so it’s hard to say what the true impacts are going to be long term.”

Thomas said Westwood’s grocery stores have been more successful than ever, and other essential businesses like Target are also fairing well. Some retail businesses, which could not allow customers inside to shop, have adopted online order and curbside pickup strategies.

However, public health regulations have had different effects on restaurants, Thomas said. Those that functioned largely on dine-out, to-go or delivery orders are mostly doing better than those that depended on customers dining in, he said.

“There are other businesses playing catch up, but many have adapted quickly and increased their online presence,” Thomas said. “There’s some that have really started to pivot to try to manage online food ordering, pick-up and delivery. People are adapting.”

Alex Kim, the store manager of Ami Japanese restaurant, said that transitioning to takeout is keeping the restaurant afloat. Kim said he shifted promotions like happy hour, which were previously only for dine-in customers, to be applicable to take-out, and now also runs promotions through delivery apps like UberEats and Grubhub. Additional promotions are available for front-line workers, first responders and UCLA students, he added.

“Our main consumers are students, so they left and it’s pretty slow, but at the same time, all of the hospital workers and front-line workers and people who live around here, they’ve been trying to help us out and order with us as much as possible,” Kim said.

Ami is still operating seven days a week and has installed extra hand-sanitizer stations and guards for when they are able to seat customers again, Kim said. As of right now, it is unclear when that will be because of safety concerns, but Kim said he hopes that when it is safe, UCLA and surrounding offices will be open and provide more foot traffic to Ami and other restaurants in the area.

While the pandemic has yet to directly cause any permanent closures, it did accelerate the shutdown of Stan’s Donuts, which served Westwood and its visitors for 55 years. Owner Stan Berman said in a statement on the store’s website that he had already planned to retire, but his decision was expedited to avoid operating business during the pandemic.

[Related link: Stan’s Donuts to close after 55 years of business, citing COVID-19]

Meanwhile, Rocco’s Tavern plans to reopen when it is safe and can accommodate safety protocols, owner Josh Trifunovic said.

“Rocco’s is not going anywhere and we will be ready to serve UCLA and the surrounding community once again,” Trifunovic said. “We will definitely need the support from everyone when we do open, so please come by and say hello.”

Despite being closed to customers, Rocco’s joined other popular Westwood Village restaurants in providing free lunches to UCLA front-line workers through a GoFundMe established by WVIA. More than $10,000 has been donated to the fund, and Thomas said that WVIA has completed two rounds of meal disbursements.

Thomas said Los Angeles must take steps to promote public safety in conjunction with economic development as the city reopens. A number of motions have been introduced and are being brought to committee in the city council to make reopening easier, less time-consuming and less expensive, he added. Thomas said expanding outdoor dining in Westwood is critical, and that limitations that have thwarted village businesses in the past should be set aside.

“As an organization, we’ve been talking specifically about measures that we can take to support and facilitate recovery of the district, and I hope what comes out of that conversation is a series of recommendations that we would make to the city to try to kick start recovery in the district,” Thomas said. “But it’s on us now. … We’ve got to come together or we’re going to be in trouble.”

Thomas said that while Westwood is making progress, the current state of the Village is merely the tip of the iceberg in terms of economic devastation.

Tenants receive rent forbearance under the eviction moratorium of the emergency ordinance. However, when the pandemic is over, tenants may not be able to afford their back-rents and property owners may not be able to afford their mortgages, and Thomas said that will incur long-term effects on the Village.

He said he expects more losses of businesses, especially if people from the UCLA community are not present when businesses need to compensate for months of missed revenue.

“When the shutdown is lifted, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better,” Thomas said. “But if we don’t get together and make things easier for our community, we might not have a Village to come back to. It might be completely unrecognizable.”

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