Two years of COVID-19: Business owners, residents reflect on Laguna Beach’s resilience

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The Laguna Beach City Council and city staffers pose for a photo at the Promenade on Forest on June 15, 2020. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

By Megan Miller, Special to the Independent

In the early days of the pandemic, Paula Hornbuckle-Arnold recalls sitting in her Glenneyre Street office with her feet up on her desk, alone.

On March 15, 2020, then-Laguna Beach city manager John Pietig had declared a local state of emergency, clearing the way for a two-week closure of city buildings to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. It was raining, and not a single car or person could be seen on the street outside.

“It was pretty eerie,” Hornbuckle-Arnold said. “The City felt like a ghost town.”

Then at an emergency meeting on March 23, 2020, the City Council voted to take the extraordinary step of closing city beaches to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

It’s been two years since the onslaught of the pandemic, but for many business owners in Laguna Beach, memories of the tumultuous spring of 2020 still serve as a fresh reminder of the importance of adaptability, resilience, and local government support in a time of nationwide crisis.

Hornbuckle-Arnold, then-CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, said she fielded calls until about 9 p.m. from business owners worrying about whether they would have to get a loan or close entirely.

“I was equally as confused,” Hornbuckle-Arnold said. “But it was my job to not give up.”

Then-Mayor Bob Whalen said the City’s primary focus at the time was the health of the residents and the economic wellbeing of local businesses and nonprofits.

“It was a daily thing,” Whalen said. “I went from being a mayor where you’d have a meeting every couple of weeks, to basically every day working on COVID matters with the City.”

Grants from the CARES Act were distributed to dozens of businesses and nonprofits in the summer of 2020. Around the same time, the City closed down Forest Avenue from Coast Highway to Glenneyre Street for a pedestrian-only promenade, allowing visitors to enjoy the downtown area with social distancing and parklets built for outdoor dining.

Another program, the Laguna COVID-19 Relief Fund launched by business owners and volunteers, distributed over $400,000 to workers and residents in need.

Bob Mister, co-founder of the fund, said he didn’t know how many people would apply but saw the community needed help fast.

“It was probably the hardest I’ve ever worked in my life,” Mister said, adding he spent hours each day making phone calls and sifting through hundreds of applications.

Laguna Beach resident Bob Mister was the inspiration for the local COVID-19 relief fund. Courtesy of Stephanie Mister

The initial fund ran until July 2020 and had close to 250 contributors. Following conversations with Whalen, Mister started up a second round, after the City Council approved grants totaling $300,000 to the match fund.

“A lot of the folks just as we talked over the phone would mention how much it meant to them and how grateful they were,” Mister said.

Overall, close to 1,900 individuals living or working in Laguna Beach received direct aid. While the majority were in food service, Mister said 50 or 60 artists also received assistance.

The pandemic squeezed many of the City’s arts programs. The Festival of the Arts’ Pageant of the Masters was halted for the first time since World War II, and the Sawdust Art Festival canceled its usual summer operations for the first time since its founding in 1967.

The shuttering forced the Sawdust to consider other alternatives, including a “greatly reduced” outdoor marketplace in the fall of 2020 which saw only about 60 artists compared to the usual 200, said Monica Prado, President of the Sawdust Art Festival.

“The pandemic really underscored how important [art] is to the public,” Prado said.

The closure also prompted a new event in 2021 – the Spring Fling – fashioned after the outdoor marketplace with added live music and art classes. After receiving widespread public support, Sawdust decided to bring the event back for 2022.

The primary goal of the festival continues to be encouraging the public to get involved in the arts, but “being innovative and being creative has really changed things,” Prado said.

The message of resilience and change is one shared by Heidi Miller, a 30-year businesswoman and owner of Tight Assets boutique and the World Newsstand along Coast Highway.

“I don’t think anyone today who is open doing business is doing business the way they did three years ago,” Miller said.

Miller was able to keep her boutique afloat through local government assistance, and by drawing on her assistance as a quilter. She made close to 3,600 masks, which were distributed around town through deliveries, mailing, and short pick-up windows at her storefront.

Heidi Miller, owner of World Newsstand, which reopened at 689 S. Coast Hwy after leaving a long-time location on Ocean Avenue. Photo by Breeana Greenberg

After three months of closure, state and local governance allowed her to slowly reopen her shop in increments. As a majority of shoppers were still working from home, Miller also had to adjust to the changing needs of her customers, and Tight Assets began offering more casual clothing items.

“You hit a wall, and instead of slamming into it, you pivot,” Miller said. “You have to pivot.”

Hornbuckle-Arnold said the Chamber of Commerce became known as the place to go to, as funding and resources came down the pike for business owners.

Laguna Beach City Council approved a $1.1 million relief package in December 2020, which offered up to $5,000 grants for local businesses. Councilmembers voted the following month to boost that sum to $2 million, adding a transient occupancy tax deferral program for hotels to help a reeling hospitality industry that was accustomed to seeing six million visitors each year.

Having already received one round of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and with the second installment on the way in the next few months, Whalen said Laguna Beach is back on track both financially and economically this year, and is also better prepared to deal with a pandemic in the future.

“It’s not anything I particularly want to do again,” Whalen said. “But I’m very proud of the way we handled the last two years.”

Laguna Beach is also set to consider whether it will make the Promenade on Forest Avenue a permanent fixture.

Councilmembers have contracted a consultant to obtain the necessary city approvals, a process staffers anticipate could continue until June. The Chamber of Commerce is on board with the idea, along with most businesses and residents in the downtown area who are continuing to recover from the economic fallout from COVID-19

One of the most important takeaways from the early days of the pandemic was the knowledge that the City let her and other businesses and residents know they weren’t alone, Miller said.

“Everybody kind of watched out for each other, and that’s what Laguna is all about,” she said.

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