Historic heart of Los Angeles on life support from COVID-19

LOS ANGELES (AP) - For nine nights culminating on Christmas Eve, Los Angeles' oldest street usually comes alive with a festive reenactment of the nativity story as children playing Mary and Joseph walk door-to-door seeking shelter where she can give protection birth to Jesus.
If the procession took place this year, many shops on Olvera Street would be closed.
The Mexican market, known as the birthplace of Los Angeles, has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Shops and restaurants are closed, others are barely attached. California is experiencing by far the worst coronavirus outbreak, and Los Angeles is one of the places where it has seen the biggest surge.
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"It's pretty bleak right now," said Edward Flores, owner of Juanitas Cafe, which the state health policy allows for take-away meals and business has declined by 90%. “I know six (companies) that have brought themselves to their knees. These are my neighbors and my friends. To see them fail through no fault of their own is heartbreaking. "
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Editor's Note - Small businesses around the world are struggling to survive amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. Whether or not they make it does not only affect the local economy, but also the fabric of communities. Associated Press journalists tell their stories on the "Small Business Struggles" series.
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On Olvera Street, the tree-covered brick alley where tourists usually live is empty. Many of the stores that sell everything from traditional Mexican costumes to paintings by artist Frida Kahlo to sombreros are padlocked and those that are open have few, if any, customers. The tribes of the mariachi trios have fallen silent and the scent of roasting taquitos has become less pungent.
The response to COVID-19 in California - various degrees of standstill and postponement rules to limit capacity and the way food can be served - has been crippling for many businesses. However, the impact on Olvera Street is unique.
The shops and restaurants are heavily dependent on tourism, which has collapsed worldwide due to lockdown regulations, quarantine rules or the fact that many people do not want to take any risks while traveling.
They also anticipate a crowd for lunch, powered by downtown office workers and people attending trials in nearby courthouses. These customers are gone with so many people now working from home and many legal proceedings being conducted online or over the phone.
The year-round cultural events, which attract large crowds, were canceled this year to prevent mass outbreaks. There was no animal blessing in April, no Cinco de Mayo, no Dia de los Muertos in autumn, and no Las Posadas celebration that marked the trip to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.
The street, named after the county's first judge, is the thriving center of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles historic monument, near which the city's original settlers founded a farming community in 1781. It fell into disrepair in the early 20th century until it was restored in 1930 as a market square and turned into a kind of living history museum.
Typically more than 2 million people visit the site, which is open every day of the year and is home to four museums, two churches, and more than 70 shops and restaurants.
Valerie Hanley, treasurer of the Olvera Street Merchants Association Foundation and shopkeeper, said only about a fifth of the shops are now open during the week, and about two-thirds are open Friday through Sunday to stop by.
"We suck in air," said Hanley, who runs Casa California with her 83-year-old mother. "The little bit we do ... it's enough to put food on the table, keep your insurance, and pay a few bills."
Owners took a hiatus in July when their landlord - the city of Los Angeles - decided to let the rent out by the end of the year. Hanley is now concerned about how many companies can hold out to the January rents' due date after just receiving the county property tax bills they are responsible for paying.
Many of the owners are third and fourth generation, and Hanley said that if they went out of business, they would be lost.
When Debbie Briano's great-grandmother started El Rancho Grande as a restaurant in 1930, there was no electricity. She cooked meat on charcoal at home and the market was lit by oil lanterns. Briano's father, from whom she inherited the business when he died, spent his entire life on the streets, pulling a red cart of boiled beans from his grandmother's house to the restaurant as a boy, she said.
"It's amazing when I hear all this stuff and think, 'I can't let go of this," Briano said. "My dad left that to me because he knew I would take care of this business."
Even if the December light casts long shadows on the market, Briano does not give up. She serves takeaway and pays five employees - including brothers who worked there for 55 and 48 years respectively - but not herself.
It's sad to see stores close and the void feels like it has stepped into an episode of "The Twilight Zone," she said. If you cancel the celebration in Las Posadas, no children will swing a pinata or sing Christmas carols every night as they follow the procession of angels and shepherds that lead Mary and Joseph on their journey from Nazareth.
But Briano still decorated her cafe the way she normally would for Christmas. She bought poinsettias, put up a real tree, hung tinsel, lights and tied little snowmen and Santa Claus over her window.
"I had to do this to feel normal," she said. "I'm not going to let COVID take our Christmas magic away."
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