Just in time for Mother’s Day, L.A. flower shops reopen after coronavirus shutdown

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Hugging your mom on Mother’s Day may be out of the question, but praising her with flowers this weekend just got a bit easier.

Flower shops across Los Angeles County will reopen this Friday for curbside pickup, giving florists a chance to sell on one of their biggest days of the year.

County officials announced Wednesday that they will allow several retailers to open their doors, including clothing stores, bookstores, sporting good stores and car dealerships.

For flower shops, Mother’s Day weekend is a pivotal event that provides some shops with half their annual earnings. It’s also the start of a busy season that then pivots to spring weddings and summer events, said Kate Penn, chief executive of the Society of American Florists.

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The organization has spent recent weeks lobbying on behalf of nearly 4,000 florists, wholesale dealers and growers nationwide for the reopening of businesses that sell flowers, a commodity categorized as horticulture.

Carlos Trejo, who works for Patty's Flowers in Costa Mesa, purchases flowers in downtown Los Angeles
Carlos Trejo, who works for Patty’s Flowers in Costa Mesa, purchases flowers in downtown Los Angeles.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)
Flower arrangement at Lupita's Flowers in downtown Los Angeles
Flower arrangement at Lupita’s Flowers in downtown Los Angeles.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

“Our industry is so relieved to be coming back,” Penn said. “I can’t imagine us having a Mother’s Day without flowers.”

In Los Angeles, the heart of the flower trade is downtown‘s Flower District, a roughly six-block area comprising hundreds of vendors, considered by many to be the biggest in the country. Roses, lilies, orchids and countless other flowers are imported from as far away as Colombia and Costa Rica and purchased by local flower shops, funeral homes, hospitals and event planners.

The district props up a diverse ecosystem of small businesses, including street vendors. Some estimates indicate that businesses in the area collectively produce about $1 billion a year.

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Mayor Eric Garcetti spoke about the Flower District at a briefing this week, calling it the “Big Daddy.” He allowed wholesale dealers to reopen and begin stocking up their inventory on Tuesday under strict social distancing guidelines.

“We saw some other flower marts that do wholesale open in other parts of the state and even in this county,” Garcetti said. “And we thought if those ones have stayed open this one should be as well especially coming up for Mother’s Day.”

It’s not too late. You can buy mom a houseplant for Mother’s Day and help a small business in the process.

The announcement triggered a mix of feelings for business owners across the district.

Many, like Mark Chatoff, president and CEO of California Flower Mall, were pleased to hear they would be serving customers once more.

“It’s been quite the challenge getting through this,” Chatoff said. “For weeks, we had nothing and now we have something. It’s a good start.”

 The Original Los Angeles Flower Market in downtown Los Angeles  will reopen Friday ahead of Mother's Day weekend
The Original Los Angeles Flower Market in downtown Los Angeles will reopen Friday ahead of Mother’s Day weekend.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Since he closed up shop in mid-March, Chatoff estimates, he lost about 20% of his 40 vendors. Some were left with up to $100,000 worth of flowers to dispose of when the pandemic hit; others feared they could not weather the loss or uncertainty, so they permanently shut down.

“These were hardworking, loyal people who had been here for years supporting their families,” he said.

One of the concerns vendors regularly brought to Chatoff in recent weeks had to do with outside vendors -- the dozens of mom and pop flower shops that deal independently in the district.

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As Mother’s Day approached, a number of them began to defy city and county orders and open their stores.

“There were a few renegades,” Chatoff said. “They were running willy-nilly thinking if they get busted, they get busted.”

 Flower wholesalers are allowed to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic in downtown Los Angeles
Flower wholesalers are allowed to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic in downtown Los Angeles.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Some business owners were concerned that these rule breakers were going to lure away customers in the long run by offering cheaper prices.

Others who followed protocol said they felt blindsided by the mayor’s decision to reopen, leaving them at a disadvantage just days before Mother’s Day.

“It usually takes me three weeks to prepare for this day,” said one rose vendor at the Original Los Angeles Flower Market who declined to give her name. “I sell seven trailers’ worth of flowers. This year, I’m hoping to get just one because I don’t have the inventory.”

Estela Lopez, executive director of the Downtown Industrial Business Improvement District, said she was happy to hear that businesses would be earning income once more, but she worried about the city’s efforts to keep the area safe.

For years, the Flower District has been a destination for shoppers from across Southern California. On Mother’s Day, a crush of people descends on the area to buy bouquets for moms, grandmothers and aunts. On those days, the narrow sidewalks and shops are packed with floral arrangements, balloons and generations of families.

Lopez said she worries that the bigger wholesalers such as Mellano and the Southern California Flower Market will be better informed and regulated, but the smaller shops that the public patronizes most won’t know all the regulations -- or bother obeying them.

Flower wholesalers are allowed to reopen ahead of Mother's Day weekend
Flower wholesalers are allowed to reopen ahead of Mother’s Day weekend.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

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“If you think the beaches got crowded, wait until you see how busy this place gets,” Lopez said. “The last thing you want is for people to be unprepared, to get sick themselves or bring this virus home to Grandma.”

City officials said they have a team working closely with businesses to emphasize safety protocols. In recent weeks, they said, 95% of locations in the district complied with orders and stayed closed, and officials visited and warned about 65 flower shops and wholesale locations.

On Wednesday morning, Gladys Soria was relieved to be back at work at Lupita’s Flowers. She and 10 other workers had been busy since they opened at 5 a.m., taking orders. There was a buzz of chatter in the shop as workers rang up roses and bouquets.

“It feels good,” said Soria, who has worked at the corner shop for five years. “Bills don’t pay themselves. I’m just hoping everything will go back to normal soon.”