‘We’re excited, we’re nervous’: Greg Laemmle and other LA business owners cautiously eye reopenings

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Bennett Purser

“I'm not jumping into anything quite yet. And I want to make sure that all of our staff feels confident and able to resume their duties because it has been a year of closure,” says Corrie Siegel, executive director of the Museum of Neon Art. Photo by Gary Van Der Steur.

For the first time in nearly a year, LA County has moved out of the most restrictive (purple) tier in the state’s COVID reopening plan. 

According to LA County public health director Barbara Ferrer, caution will be needed to prevent further coronavirus catastrophe.

“We don't yet have enough people vaccinated to prevent another disastrous increase in cases unless we're all going to remain committed to using the other tools that we have: masking, distancing and hand washing whenever we're around others not in our household,” Ferrer says. “This is particularly important as we prepare to move forward in our recovery journey and begin to plan for additional reopenings.”

Shifting to the red tier means movie theaters, museums, and gyms can now resume indoor operations at limited capacities. Masks and socially distancing will be required. 

KCRW talks with Greg Laemmle, president of Laemmle Theatres and Corrie Siegel, executive director of the Museum of Neon Art (MONA). 

“We’re excited, we’re nervous,” says Laemmle, who estimates it will take three to five weeks to reopen his theaters. He will need to rehire and train staff, as well as prepare facilities for guests. 

 “We could have started this process a few weeks ago. But you know, given our experience last summer where LA got close to reopening but didn't quite make it, we wanted to make sure that this was definitely happening.”

That process includes HVAC and cosmetic upgrades such as coronavirus-related floor markings and signage. To ensure proper social distancing, Laemmle says his theaters will also start a seating reservation system. Concession stands will reopen, but management will require guests to wear masks when not actively consuming food.

Siegel says she’s cautiously optimistic about reopening the museum. Like Laemmle, she says the museum was almost able to reopen last summer. But due to rising coronavirus cases, she was forced to cancel plans. Siegel says the museum will implement a grace period between already existing digital programming and reopening efforts. 

“I'm not jumping into anything quite yet. And I want to make sure that all of our staff feels confident and able to resume their duties because it has been a year of closure,” Siegel says. “Even though they've been actively working for MONA, they had to completely re-envision their roles and their duties for the museum.”

Why workers might be feel hesitant

Siegel says that while it feels good to be closer to inviting guests back into the museum, a reopening might be less safe for employees. 

“We really want to make sure that our staff who have really been making the ultimate sacrifice during the pandemic and just working so hard to keep the museum relevant and engaged, that they have enough time to adjust and that we can do this in a really responsible way,” she says.

Laemmle says his theater managers have indicated readiness and willingness to return to work. He expects his other employees might be more comfortable now about returning, as opposed to earlier in the pandemic.

“In terms of enforcing policies, I think people are feeling a little more comfortable about that now than they were during the summer. It seems to have finally gotten through to the public — at least in California — that you're going to be wearing a mask when you're in a public environment.”

The financial burden 

Laemmle says it's too early to predict what type of profit reopening will deliver. That’s due in part to the 25% cap in indoor capacity at movie theaters.

“For some theaters, we may not reopen them at this time. Because if the auditoriums are just too small, and we can't do enough business to justify bringing back staff, we can't add to what's already been a very difficult year in terms of profit and loss.”

According to Siegel, MONA has lost about 70% of its estimated revenue so far. She says it’s representative of the struggles facing small museums.

“It's been a really intense time for the museum, just really thinking towards survival,” she says. “And I think a lot of museums, especially small ones, have been really concerned about making it through.”

The pandemic did force the museum to pivot online, and Siegel says she’s seen a hunger for digital, and eventual in-person, experiences. 

“We've seen our audience grow by thousands during this time and a real outpouring of support and donations from our members, and some who haven't even come to the museum yet but found us on social media and were so inspired by what we're doing,” Siegel says. 

Credits

Guests: