BizCare Program Helps Long Beach Businesses Navigate the Pandemic and Beyond
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020, and the public health orders that followed, sent many Long Beach small businesses reeling. The City’s multi-faceted response included The BizCare Program, created during the height of the pandemic to help connect small businesses with resources such as grants, technical assistance, and up-to-date information.
Starting off as a call center to help handle the huge volume of inquiries the City's Economic Development Department was suddenly getting calls from local business owners, BizCare evolved into an in-person resource center and an aggressive outreach campaign, working to ensure that businesses in every area of Long Beach would know about and have equal access to critical assistance.
The City selected a strong problem-solver to run the BizCare Program at the time, Adelita Lopez. Lopez is a United States Navy veteran who developed her mission-driven approach while serving on ships in the Persian Gulf during Operation Enduring Freedom.
She emigrated to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico at age five, grew up in the town of Weedpatch, near Bakersfield, California. She enlisted in the Navy after high school. When she returned from the Gulf, she earned a Bachelor's degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Master's degree from the University of Southern California before entering the workforce.
She was working in Long Beach's Office of Civic Innovation in March of 2020 when the call came for a reassignment to the Economic Development Department, where she was to assist with special projects and recovery efforts related to the pandemic. Her first order of business was to help set up a call center.
"Hundreds of businesses were reaching out, wondering about all details of the City's health orders," Lopez explained. “Since parks and pools were shut down at this point, the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Marine was a natural choice to help staff the call center and ease the burden."
Several City employees stepped up to the challenge, taking on this important work. It was a big team effort with one mission to provide extra support to small businesses during this critical time.
To add to the challenges already in play in 2020, in May of that year Long Beach experienced civil unrest, and many businesses were severely affected. At this point, the City decided to create new grants. The first one, the Small Business Restart Grant, with funding approved by the City Council, was for business owners impacted by the civil unrest.
The grant availability prompted many more phone calls and emails from business owners -- and the realization by BizCare that there was a communication gap. In certain pockets of the city, there were impacted businesses with no internet or wi-fi access. Some owners didn’t speak English, and had never made contact with the City before. It became clear that an in-person service was needed, especially in low-to-moderate income areas.
The City established BizCare pop-ups at the Michelle Obama library, the Mark Twain Library, Admiral Kidd Park, and the corner of 2640 Anaheim Street. The City, through its workforce development arm, Pacific Gateway Workforce Innovation Network, recruited 17 interns from local youth employment programs to staff the pop-ups.
"It worked out beautifully because not only were they being trained for a job, they took it personally because it was their neighbors, their families and their businesses," said Lopez. "It became a personal mission for them.”
These interns played an essential role in accomplishing the City’s efforts in remaining equitable in their small business outreach.
"The interns were very good at engaging from an empathetic point of view, doing everything they could to assist business owners," Lopez continued. "Last year there was so much need in the community. The interns did everything from translating Khmer, Vietnamese, Spanish, and other languages to helping create emails, and assisting business owners in accessing computers and aggregating their business-related information. The pop-up centers became their support."
Tommy Mofid, who owns and operates the Wrigley Tavern, connected with more than just financial assistance at a BizCare pop-up.
"I was at my wit's end during the height of the pandemic," he said. "My Dad had COVID. The Health Department orders were changing frequently. Grant money helped a great deal, but to have a human guide me in-person got me through it much more than the money."
The experience had a positive ripple effect on Mofid; He shared his BizCare connection with his neighbor, a Thai restaurant owner who doesn’t speak English. She was one of many long-time local small business owners who got connected with City assistance for the first time through BizCare.
"People would come to the pop-ups and just sigh in relief when they found out about the Small Business Restart Grant and the Small Business Transition and Technology Grant," said Lopez. "Where many of them come from, the government doesn't give you money to fix your business."
While Lopez was on maternity leave for a few months starting in late September of 2020, the well-oiled BizCare team, both dedicated full-time employees and the interns, continued to lead the charge serving the community. When she returned to work at the beginning of 2021, she analyzed BizCare data and saw that there remained areas of Long Beach where businesses were unresponsive and unaware of assistance programs.
"My experience being with the BizCare Outreach Team was one of a kind in many ways. I was impacted by every business owner that I assisted knowing their financial struggles during unprecedented times and limitations of their business operations," said Samantha Zarate who was one of the interns. "Engaging with business owners who had limitation with technology accessibility or language translation was an uplifting and an unforgettable experience."
With this information, BizCare staff assembled outreach teams to go out and make personal contact with businesses, building trust, informing them of programs and helping them apply. In 2021, BizCare outreach teams helped small businesses apply for over $100,000 in grants and the BizCare outreach team visited more than 1,000 businesses.
A focused and efficient person, Lopez softens when talking about her BizCare experience.
"I remember one 80-year-old woman who owned a local business for 30 years,” she said. “An immigrant, she spoke no English, had no internet, no car, and didn't even know how to take the bus. She walked to our pop-up and found out about grants for the first time.”
“Another woman who owned a local business for 25 years lost it all in one day, when her business burned down during the civil unrest,” Lopez added. “We were able to help her secure two grants, and she kept her clientele by opening her own pop-up in the park."
The BizCare team continues to meet daily, examining data collected from every BizCare interaction, fueled by the same urgency that got the program started in March of 2020.
Although Lopez is now working on a different assignment, when she thinks about the City’s role and the amazing staff that carries on with BizCare, she says, "we have to do this. These people are truly in need."