The enormous parking lot at the corner of Arroyo Street and Glenoaks Boulevard on the border of Pacoima and San Fernando is desolate. The throngs of cars and people who used to visit the San Fernando Swap Meet on Tuesday, and Thursday through Sunday, are now gone.
As with many other businesses and places that congregate large numbers of individuals, this iconic commerce center in the Northeast San Fernando Valley has been shuttered amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The closure affects not only the vendors who sell there, but also the thousands of people — entire families spanning several generations — who go there to spend their days looking to buy used and new gardening and construction tools, clothing, soap and even furniture.
For decades, this place has been a gathering point in the department-store starved corner of the Valley. Many families spend their weekends there, shopping and eating, or simply walking around the stalls in the open air market.
For 41 years, Cornelio Valentin has risen early and headed to the San Fernando Swap Meet to sell his products: blankets, socks, sheets and various other items in four spots manned by him, his wife and his kids.
But for the past two months, he hasn’t been able to sell a thing.
It’s the first time, Valentin says, the Swap Meet has been closed this long since he first started selling there in 1979.
After 9/11, “it was only one week, almost nothing,” Valentin said.
Things had already gone downhill in February, when “sales dropped all of a sudden,” he notes.
“It had never been down that much,” Valentin said. “People were not spending. They were already talking about this (COVID-19), and I guess people were saving or just buying the things they needed most.”
On March 8, Valentin and the rest of the vendors were told they were closing, initially until April 2.
Now “only God knows,” Valentin said with a sigh. “The Swap Meet is my life.”
He’s been surviving with savings and tries to stay busy at home. He’s also waiting for his stimulus check.
But he misses going to the Swap Meet, where he made around $3,000 a month to support his family.
Valentin wonders, when it reopens, whether he’ll get any credit for having already paid the monthly fee for the stalls and the container, where he keeps his merchandise.
And while hopeful that the Swap Meet will reopen, Valentin wonders whether people will show up.
“Some people are going to be fearful to go and some are not going to have money to spend,” he said, adding, “let’s just hope we can sustain ourselves until then.”
Benjamin Diaz Morales is another vendor. For the past year, he’s been buying pallets from Amazon to resell the items at the Swap Meet on weekends: they include headphones, clothes, and whatever else was on the pallets.
He also noticed a dramatic slowdown in February, and was not surprised when vendors were told the Swap Meet was closing.
“People were not showing up,” Morales said.
He also has merchandise in some of the containers at the Swap Meet.
“They didn’t let us take anything,” he said.
Morales estimates he’s lost $6,000 in the time the Swap Meet has been closed. He’s now in working construction a few days a week to make ends meet.
“(The Swap Meet is also) part-time, but it helps,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll get out of this soon so we can go back.”
Even if the Swap Meet reopens, Morales believes it will take time to recover.
“A lot of people go there, and if they open they’re going to put restrictions so that not a lot of people are there at the same time. I think they will have to limit how many people enter,” Morales said.
“While this is not under control, they’re going to have precautions not to let in so many people. Maybe they won’t rent all the stalls so that we’re not all together. Even if they open, maybe not all of us will be able to be there.”
No one knows when the Swap Meet will open. California officials have just begun to slowly phase out restrictions. Florists, some retailers and car dealerships got the go-ahead on May 8 to open, but they can only offer curbside pickup for their products.
Manufacturers, offices, libraries and other retail shops would be next to open— also in limited capacity.
But the Swap Meet reopening will have to wait.
“I do not know, but it will most likely be during either [Phase] 3 or 4 of the state and county’s re-opening efforts,” said San Fernando City Manager Nick Kimball. “They have not shared any timing regarding implementation of additional stages, mostly because I don’t know that either the state or county know at this time.
“I think they are opening slowly and continuously reviewing the data to determine when to implement each subsequent stage… or revert back to a prior stage.”
Phase 3 covers the opening of higher-risk businesses including massage parlors, bars and nightclubs, movie theaters and bowling alleys, and even more importantly schools, colleges and universities. Cal State Universities will be online this fall.
The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has said it will start the new school year August 18, but it is unclear whether students will continue to receive classes online or in the classrooms.
Phase 4 is even more remote as it involves the opening of entertainment venues, large conventions, sporting and spectator events. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said it is unlikely that such places will open and events are held there before 2021.
If the opening of the San Fernando Swap Meet is delayed until Phase 4, it likely means no opening this year not even in November and December, often the best months for the vendors when people shop for Christmas gifts.
Then again, no one knows what shape Christmas 2020 will take.
Impact on City Coffers
The closure not only affects the vendors and shoppers, but the City of San Fernando’s coffers as well.
Kimball says the primary source of tax revenue generated by the Swap Meet is Admissions Tax, which is paid by each individual who enters the swap meet.
“The City receives approximately $700,000 per year, i.e. $60,000 per month, in Admissions Tax revenue. Additionally, the City receives approximately $75,000 in sales tax revenue [yearly] from vendors selling items at the swap meet,” Kimball said.
“There are still many variables, including how long the economic restrictions imposed by the ‘Safer at Home’ order lasts. But at this time, staff estimates a loss of $1.5 million to $2 million in tax revenue, which represents about 10% of the General Fund revenue.”
At the April 20 City Council meeting, Kimball told municipal authorities that many local retailers, restaurants, manufactures and service providers are experiencing a significant loss of revenue which, in turn, impacts the City’s tax base.
“The City’s top revenue sources include Sales Tax ($7.7 million), Business Tax ($1.3 million), and Admission Tax from the swap meet ($715,000), which are all generated from local business activity and will be directly impacted by the economic shutdown. Together, those three revenue sources account for approximately 47%, or $9.7 million, of total General Fund revenue,” Kimball said.
“Consequently, staff is estimating a revenue shortfall of $1.5 – $2 million for fiscal year 2020-2021, which assumes economic restrictions and social distancing orders will begin to be relaxed in early June. The shortfall may be larger if restrictions are extended. Although a portion of this shortfall will be recognized in the current fiscal year, the City will need to take steps to address this shortfall,” Kimball told the council.