Business Health Lead Story West Edition

In Leimert Park, life goes on amid coronavirus outbreak

LEIMERT PARK — The streets near Leimert Park were nearly empty March 18 due to Mayor Eric Garcetti’s edict for those who were non-essential personnel to stay at home in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

Evelyn Hilliard, 75, got the memo. Yes, she knows people her age are at high risk, but she doesn’t scare easily. Without a care in the world, this feisty septuagenarian sits back in her chair at Fashion Nail Spa in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall to get her regular manicure and pedicure.

A retired crossing guard, Hilliard, a ‘faithful’ person who attends Crenshaw Christian Center, is admittedly “unmoved” and “un-phased” by the global coronavirus pandemic that has gripped the world and brought itself to the doorsteps of Angelenos.

“My life has not and will not change because I don’t have the spirit of fear,” said Hilliard, a New Orleans native who has called Los Angeles home for the last 54 years. “I have the real God in me. If you call yourself a believer, a believer who lives by faith, then you can’t be moved by what you see or hear. I’m not moved. My God is well-equipped to take on anything. I don’t want anyone to be afraid or alarmed. We’re going to be all right.”

Hilliard, who easily rolls Bible scriptures off her tongue, was one of only two customers in Fashion Nail Spa and one of only about 20 customers throughout the large mall, where a  majority of the stores were closed.

A mainstay in the community, Macy’s decided to close its doors March 17 at 6 p.m. It won’t reopen until March 31. A manager at the mall said individual stores could remain open as long as the mall itself was open.

All of this has become a new normal for Los Angeles residents who have seen not only eerily empty freeways, but the closing of schools, churches, colleges and universities, bars and gyms. Some restaurants remain open, but only for take out orders and deliveries.

Everyday life is very different as some Los Angeles residents, who ventured out of their homes, witnessed the rare sight of empty sidewalks, streets and stores.

Olivia Clavon, 28, is seven months pregnant. She and William Hunt, 24, who works at Spago in Beverly Hills, came out to buy items for her baby at Target and Osh Kosh.  Both Clavon and Hunt, who said he worked his last shift at Spago March 16 before it closed, were both wearing gloves as a precaution but were not wearing masks because Clavon said it makes her “too hot.”

“I’m not scared of getting the virus,” said Hunt, who said he and Clavon are practicing social distancing. “I’m just being cautious and aware of my surroundings. For the most part, like everyone else, we’re just staying home and watching television.”

April Muhammad, the owner of Malik Books, has seen a huge drop in her clientele. She said usually a lot of shoppers like to come in and browse. Lately, though, the few who have patronized the store come for a specific item and leave. 

“I’m not scared about what’s going on because I don’t live my life that way,” said Muhammad, who is not sure how long she can stay open. “I live by faith. What I am concerned about is meeting payroll for my workers who I care about.”

Lisa Kang is the manager at Beauty Club Plus in the mall. While there were a couple of customers in the store, she has seen the shoppers who frequent her store cut in half.

“This is really hurting our business,” Kang said. “There’s no food, everything is closed. What are we going to do? I’m very scared of the economy collapsing. I’m hopeful all of this will be over in two weeks.”

The GNC shop at the mall was completely empty. Sonia Robinson, who has owned it for 26 years, sat solo at the register. She said in the last couple of days, she has had seven customers.

She’s worried about being able to continue helping an older gentleman she cooks for because it’s been difficult to find food.

“Personally, this has been hard,” said Robinson who travels every day from Rialto to the mall. “I go to the store and there is no milk, eggs or water. I’ve had to come up with other things to cook.”

Like everyone else, Robinson is worried about her finances.

“Financially this is terrible,” she said shaking her head. “How are we all going to pay our bills? How am I going to pay my workers?”

Fifteen years ago, Chinyere Jackson left her native Nigeria for Los Angeles. For 12 years she’s owned a jewelry kiosk in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Mall called African Collection.

“For a week I’ve had no customers,” Jackson. “It’s because people are scared. I’m also scared of getting it. How do I pay rent and eat? This is not working for me.”

Degnan Boulevard in Leimert Park looked like a ghost town with a few homeless stragglers. The beloved block near West 43rd Street, which is home to the revered black bookstore Eso Won Books, is usually bustling. Now, due to the coronavirus, there are very few people on its streets.

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books, said the store, which closed its doors on March 14, will remain that way “until the unforeseeable future.” However, he will be in the store every day from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. to accommodate those customers who are picking up items ordered online.

“We can’t stay open the way we used to with people just coming in and wondering around because we don’t know if they’re sick,” said Fugate when reached by phone.

Asked how long he could operate that way and keep his business afloat, Fugate said the bookstore could probably last a couple of months.

“The way things are going, I don’t think it will be only two weeks,” he said. “ If we only have to stay closed through April, even May, we could survive. I don’t have infinite money, so I’m figuring out a budget now to pay ourselves and the basic bills. Luckily, one of our publishers is giving us extended terms, which will help. I’m anticipating it will be the end of May before we see the business come back.” 

Peter Young Wilkes, 76, who hails from Harlem, but now lives in Los Angeles, is a frequent visitor on Degnan Boulevard.

“I’ve always been cautious and mindful of people coughing,” said Wilkes, a retired photojournalist who worked at the Call Post in Ohio. “The world has changed. I’m not afraid of it, though. I came out because I’m unique and different. I’m not worried. God almighty has my back.”

Kyla Hardine, 23, is on her way back to San Diego State where she is studying communications and hopes to be able to walk for her graduation in May.

“I’m conscious about my surroundings,” said Hardine, who is now doing her classes online.

Because she lost her job in the bookstore when the campus closed, she said she’s having to do a lot of tweaking.

“I’m doing a lot of adjusting and readjusting,” said Hardine who was visiting home for a few days. “I’m now looking for work. I’m not worried about getting sick. I don’t live in worry. I just came out today because I needed some fresh air.”

At 60, Marvin Harrell is back in school at Los Angeles Trade Technical College to study diesel technology transportation. A Los Angeles native, Harrell came to the area to socialize with “some elders” he meets regularly at the McDonald’s on 43rd Street. None of them were there.

“I guess they didn’t come because now we’re not supposed to gather,” he said. “My activity hasn’t changed. My position is to stay the course. The only scary part about this for the community is that we realize we weren’t prepared.”