Video by Miles Campbell. Package originally aired on the March. 12 in the NewsWaves 32 Special Edition: The Class of COVID.
With COVID-19 keeping Pepperdine students at home, many local businesses and restaurants in Malibu felt the effects of the lack of students in the area.
As a college town for around 3,500 undergraduate college students as of 2020, Malibu typically relies on college students to support local businesses. Despite students being gone, Malibu was far from quiet as tourism ramped up during the pandemic. Visitors flocked to beaches, keeping local businesses afloat and helping new businesses opening up their doors.
“Historical numbers,” Mayor of Malibu Mikke Pierson said. “We’ve never had crowds like this. Ever.”
Malibu Business Booms
A driving factor behind the success of Malibu businesses during COVID-19 was tourism, which allowed for a few new establishments to open during the height of the pandemic, including Joules & Watts, a specialty coffee and gelato shop that opened its doors July 4.
“It was scary because of the obvious health risks or the potential to contract a virus that was going around,” said Max Gualtieri, the owner of Joules & Watts. “There was hesitation, but we felt like we could approach it intelligently and safely.”
Located in the Malibu Country Mart, the coffee shop began as a pop-up spot with plans to stay just three months, but community support allowed for Gualtieri to sign a full-year lease despite not having Pepperdine students around, Gualtieri said.
“I’m eager to see what it’s like when classes resume in person,” Gualtieri said. “I’m eager to meet new people and share more broadly with people who are excited about coffee and ice cream.”
While Joules & Watts received most of its support during the height of the pandemic from visiting tourists, other businesses in the area survived solely on local community support.
Set to close its doors this past June, Gene Arnold’s Vitamin Barn, a Malibu staple, survived the pandemic as a result of the local community.
“The driving factor for me in this town is the people who come in, and so many who say, ‘We want you here, we want you here,’” Arnold said.
Arnold planned to close his shop due to an increase in rent and heightened competition with Whole Foods. The shop’s going-out-of-business sale combined with generous community support kept the shop from shutting down permanently, Arnold said.
“I was overwhelmed,” Arnold said. “People were buying everything from me. It was an experience that was one or two up there in all my life experiences.”
Tourism in Malibu
Although students’ absence from Malibu certainly hurt many small businesses, the increase of tourism greatly assisted small businesses throughout the pandemic, Gualtieri said.
“The market so far has been mostly tourism here in Malibu,” Gualtieri said. “Mostly flourishing on the weekends, and then otherwise throughout the week there’s a steady stream of visitors — people either coming to Malibu for the day for a day trip or passing from Orange County to Santa Barbara.”
The increase in tourism also posed new challenges for the city, something the city council was not prepared for, Pierson said.
“We ended up spending a lot of money as a city cleaning up trash that we did not have in the budget,” Pierson said. “Trash was everywhere; people all over Malibu were saying that trash was everywhere.”
Malibu’s renowned beaches were convenient, open locations during the pandemic, allowing people to gather and socialize in a safe and distanced manner. More visitors than expected were gathering at beaches, especially on holidays, such as Memorial Day and the Fourth of July, leaving the city with the tough decision to keep the beaches open or not.
“If we close the beaches, people are going to freak out, and if we open the beaches, people are going to freak out,” Pierson said. “So we didn’t, and it was crowded.”
Although tourism certainly helped out small businesses around Malibu, not all businesses necessarily had tourists as the first priority; many businesses still prioritized locals.
“The tourist aspect is great and I love it when we get all the different kinds of tourists in, but the No. 1 thing is that I create relationships with the people in town,” Arnold said. “They’re the people who support me the most, so those are the people I focus on.”
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