The New Underground Economy
LA’s ‘Safer At Home’ Order’ Gave Birth To A New Economy Where Businesses Secretly Stayed Open To Avert Financial Disaster
Photo Essay & Reporting by Todd Bigelow/Contact Press Images
Los Angeles’ “Safer At Home” order was thrust to the center of national politics when the Department Of Justice issued a scathing letter to LA Mayor Eric Garcetti accusing him of taking a “arbitrary and heavy-handed approach to continuing stay-at-home orders.” Mayor Garcetti responded that the city was “not guided by politics on this. We’re guided by science” while acknowledging the order was “hardcore.”
The city’s order banned all non-essential businesses on March 19 from opening their doors but has been updated over the past 9 weeks to allow some to reopen with safety measures in place. A New Underground Economy of small business owners willing to defy the shutdown order was born. It was a race against time and the authorities, as the owners saw it. If they could avoid being caught while working clandestinely behind closed doors until the order was lifted, they could avert financial collapse. Only thing was, no one knew how long it would be until the mayor allowed his or her businesses to reopen.
When I set out to document the New Underground Economy, I was told of several dog groomers working secretly. One groomer agreed to let me shoot her busy salon behind closed doors. The owner ultimately prevailed by defying the order and avoiding detection (and financial collapse) for two months until the mayor lifted the order for her business on May 19. Others in the personal care industry have not been so lucky and are still working in stealth mode. The financial toll on these businesses has turned many law-abiding citizens into renegades.
The city and LAPD has gone after non-essential businesses defying the mayor’s Safer At Home order and announced 60 new charges on May 12 against businesses operating secretly in defiance of the order, bringing the total to nearly 80 cases against salons, gyms and other non-essential businesses.
7 Entrepreneurs who have battled for their livelihood….
The Dog Groomer Met Clients In The Alley & Whisked The Dogs Behind Closed Doors
Dog grooming businesses were listed by LA as a “non-essential” business on March 19 and ordered closed. This groomer operated behind a closed door by having clients text when they arrive at the rear of the store where she meets them and takes the dog in through a door with a sign that says “Sorry We Are Closed Until Further Notice Due To Covid19 Distancing.” ©Todd Bigelow
Dog groomers are part of a $225 billion pet industry. Although major chains such as Petco and Petsmart offer grooming and can weather the Safer At Home order by selling pet products, the majority of groomers are small businesses.
This groomer raced against time and kept working in violation of the order mandating her salon close. The salon was never discovered operating during the shutdown and was permitted by the city to “reopen” on May 19 without ever having truly closed, thus avoiding financial disaster. The sign on the door said it was closed and left a number to call. The owner would return the call and book and appointment while advising clients to text her when they arrived and directed them to pull-up to the back door. There, she would meet the dog owner at the car and quickly take the dog inside to be groomed.
A Tattoo Studio Owner Has Little Choice So He Kept Working Behind Closed Doors
A two billion dollar industry with upwards of 48,000 businesses in the country, tattoo parlors are a common site in Los Angeles and in cities across the nation.
The owner of this Los Angeles tattoo parlor had the choice of following the city’s Safer At Home order to close his non-essential business or defy the order and continue to operate behind locked doors. He chose the latter. With lights off, curtains mostly drawn and the appearance that the studio is closed, the owner works several days per by appointment only. He said he has lost at least 50% of his income and is working to pay his bills. All tattoo parlors are still closed and expected to open during Stage 3.
The Nail Salon Owner, Recently Out Of Bankruptcy, Keeps Working Discreetly in Her Closed Salon
The personal care industry, which includes small business owners of nail salons, has been hard hit by the pandemic. This is particularly true in California which has the largest number of nail salons in the country with over 23,500, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This salon owner has been in business for years and only exited bankruptcy in late 2019 following the Great Recession of 2008-2010. Despite being ordered six weeks earlier to close her shop as a “non-essential” business, she continues to work six days per week behind the closed sign. Clients are told to park on an adjacent street so as to not draw attention to the shop. When she applied early for the Paycheck Protection Program, she said she received only $1000. All nail salons are still closed and are expected to open during Stage 3.
The Hair Dresser Making House Calls To Make Rent
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, hairdressers earn a median pay of $14.50/hour and face stiff competition. Forty-four percent of the industry is self-employed and typically pay to rent space in a salon.
When salons were ordered closed, this hairdresser, who works two jobs to meet her financial responsibilities, made the choice to keep working. She either travels to client’s homes or has them come to hers. She wears a mask, gloves and disinfects everything she touches. All salons are closed until further notice from the city and are expected to open during Stage 3.
A Private Trainer Packs A Cooler Full of Dumbbells And Moves His Work Into The Park
Fitness Trainers have also been especially hard hit as gyms were closed in the famously fitness oriented Los Angeles. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 58% rely on employment from gyms and recreational facilities.
The trainer used to work at a major fitness center chain before recently branching out on his own, only to see the gym he rents space from close on city’s order. Although the gyms are slated to reopen in the 3rd stage, which has not yet arrived, fitness trainers have gone mobile to keep. The city’s order states parks are off limits except for running, walking and jogging. All activities must adhere to social distancing of six feet and everyone is required to wear masks.
Gym Owner Taking It To The Streets
This gym owner has owned several gyms in the area with the most recent one having opened only months before the Safer At Home order forced it closed on March 19. He chose to keep working some of his clients in the streets. All gyms are still closed and are expected to open in Stage 3.
Martial Arts Instructor Gave Up The Mat For A Driveway
Martial Arts, according to industry analysts at IBIS World, is a $5 billion industry comprised mostly of small businesses with over 80,000 schools nationwide which employ over 90,000 people.
This Muay Thai instructor spent time training in Thailand and fought all over the world, but saw the academy where he works close as a result of LA’s Safer At Home order that directed all martial arts schools to close. Bills to pay and a commitment to his students meant offering his services on driveways and in backyards. All martial arts schools are still closed and expected to open in Stage 3.