Stories from our communities: Part six

For the past year, the reporters at The Union have continued to cover the individuals and businesses who work through the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has created for them.

This is a continuation of a collaborative piece. Parts one, two, three, four and five are available to read.

Crowds of students at Alexander Fleming Middle School line up before the sidewalk as soon as the bell rings, awaiting their ride home. Photo by Maureen Linzaga
Crowds of students at Alexander Fleming Middle School in Lomita line up as soon as the bell rings, awaiting their ride home. Many parents whose children attend school at Fleming Middle School deal with the stress of letting their children go to school during the pandemic. Photo by Maureen Linzaga

2:55 p.m. | Fleming Middle School, Lomita

By: Maureen Linzaga

Valerie Velazco, 12, who attends Alexander Fleming Middle School, like many other students and families in Los Angeles, is readjusting to the risks of returning to in-person classes.

“Going back in person is nerve-wracking, and it’s super scary knowing I can get exposed to COVID and even my family,” Valerie said.

As the Los Angeles Unified School District reopened on Aug. 16, many parents and students alike cannot help but worry for their community’s safety during the 2021-2022 school year.

“I didn’t want to send her to school at first,” Victor Velazco, Valerie’s dad said. “But knowing that she’ll be learning and communicate with others again will help her get back to it.”

After a year of online classes, social interaction is also a big concern to Valerie and other students returning on campus.

“I’m shy, so it’s kinda hard to communicate to people again, and in classes, it’s kind of scary sitting close to people who I don’t know,” Valerie said.

Valerie and her parents remain hopeful that students like her will soon get a taste of a safe return to education.

“In the future, I just hope that everything, school, places, will be back to normal,” Valerie said. “It’s a virus that I’ll probably never forget.”

11:32 am | La Chancla, Long Beach

By: Isabella Cheves

The Norteña banda can be heard playing in the background while the smell of homemade food fills the air within the restaurant.

La Chancla is a family-owned restaurant that opened on February 6, 2020 right before the pandemic started.

Originally from Guadalajara and moved to the US with his family when he was 13-years-old, Ismael Miramontes took his New Year’s goal into a full-time project. After working for Verizon as a business manager for five years, he decided to quit his six-figure job to pursue his lifelong dream, owning a restaurant.

“It wasn’t easy, but my dream was bigger than the pandemic.” Miramontes said.

As brand new restaurant with a small budget, Miramontes had to work over 12 hour shifts because he was unable to afford another employee. The small budget took an emotional toll on him.

“I honestly thought we were gonna close down within the first 6 months. With such a little customer base, low budget for marketing, and most people not wanting to come out, I felt we didn’t have the chance.” Miramontes said.

Now, after a year and a half, La Chancla has continued to stay open, serving homemade tortillas and food made by Miramonte’s mother.

Riera's Place, a deli located on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Prospect, Redondo Beach, is owned by Nick Riera.
Riera’s Place, a deli located on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Prospect in Redondo Beach is owned by Nick Riera who opened the deli last year in August. In January, Riera was forced to temporarily shut down the deli after an employee became infected with the coronavirus. Photo by Deborah Murphy Photo credit: Deborah Murphy

4:30 p.m. | Riera’s Place Deli, Redondo Beach

By: Deborah Murphy

As you walk into the store, the smell of homemade bread and fresh cold cuts fill the air. In the background, music plays as the workers in the kitchen are busy making sandwiches and Riera’s pizza.

In Aug. 2020, Nick Riera opened Riera’s Place and is the grandson of Joe Riera, a sardine and tuna fisherman who opened a restaurant in Redondo Beach, Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto, in the 1940’s but closed in 1997. Ryan Inana, an employee at Riera’s Place, helps the owner run the deli.

From Aug. to Dec. 2020, business was doing pretty good, Inana said.

But business would come to a halt in Dec. 2020, as Inana said one of the employees got infected with COVID-19, causing an outbreak and shutting down the restaurant from Jan. to Feb. Inana was the only who didn’t get infected.

“It was really bad timing, honestly, we did really good for a long time but that set us back a little bit,” Inana said. “When we checked our phone, we had over 250 messages, that was a crazy time.”

Although they faced this setback, Inana says that the restaurant was able to open back up, all employees are now vaccinated and is seeing much success.

“We just hit one year and we have a lot of newspapers writing about us. All our reviews are super good. Thursday, Friday and Saturday are super, super busy,” Inana said.

Half of Gameplay is sectioned off with plexiglass to keep both their customers and employees safe.
Gameplay, a video game store in Los Angeles, is sectioned off with plexiglass to keep both their customers and employees safe from Covid-19. “Because of COVID, our owners had to get these plexiglass shields installed and we sectioned off the store in half, that way it’s much easier to clean and manage,” Andrew Sandoval, a cashier at Gameplay said. Photo by Khoury Williams Photo credit: Khoury Williams

4:47 p.m. | Gameplay, Los Angeles

By: Khoury Williams

The faint sound of classic 60s tunes mixed with vintage arcade sound effects can be heard on the corner of Venice Boulevard and Veteran Avenue.

Gameplay, a privately-owned video game store, prides itself in providing retro technology and video game memorabilia, in addition to new and current game releases.

The inside of Gameplay was filled with bright neon lights, shelves stacked with video games both old and new. Andrew Sandoval, a cashier at Gameplay, says the store isn’t as open as it used to be, as store capacity limits are put in place.

“This entire store used to be fully open, but because of COVID, our owners had to get these plexiglass shields installed and we sectioned off the store in half, that way it’s much easier to clean and manage,” Sandoval said.

Like many other businesses, Gameplay had to shut down at the start of the pandemic for almost two months due to ‘Stay-at-home’ orders and reopened on May 23, 2020, with front door pick-up-only service. The store would begin to see that playing video games were in demand.

“During COVID, gaming at home has picked up tremendously and we’ve definitely taken note of that here in our store. Many customers felt very nostalgic and wanted to play the games they grew up with: GameCube, Gameboy, [Nintendo] 64, Pokémon, Mario games, and the like,” Sandoval said.

Sandoval says that Gameplay was even able to sell new technologies like the PlayStation 5 and Xbox systems when they first released, but haven’t obtained any more due to the global conductor chip shortages that go into making these consoles. But even with this halt in new technology, it hasn’t slowed down Gameplay’s operation.

“Many of our customers love playing and collecting retro games, and we have sold a lot more retro stuff now than ever before,” Sandoval said.

Anthony’s Aquarium in Lomita, California has managed to thrive during the Covid-19 pandemic despite a slow down in business
Despite a slow down in business that lasted a few months last year as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthony’s Aquarium in Lomita, California has managed to thrive. “Actually because of the pandemic business was doing better because everybody had extra time…,” Christian Gonzalez, the store owner said. Photo credit: Armando Rodriguez

1 p.m. | Anthony’s Aquarium, Lomita

By: Armando Rodriguez

As you walk into Anthony’s aquarium, the sounds of parakeets and chatter from families shopping for their new pet can be heard.

Located on Pacific Coast Highway, the aquarium is a temporary home to many exotic fish and birds, a business that remained open through most days during the Covid-19 pandemic, all while handling the unique issues a pet store would face during a pandemic.

“So the beginning, everything was going good,” Christin Gonzalez, the store owner said. “Actually because of the pandemic business was doing better because everybody had extra time, but like six months later things slowed down.”

Gonzalez then looked to her birds, an assortment of parakeets housed in many cages including a 6-by-4-foot center piece bird enclosure. She said these birds helped there business, but then running into yet another road block.

“Because of the pandemic, getting our hands on the birds was hard because the breeders did not have as much stock as demanded. We then started breeding them,” Gonzalez said with a smile.

The store is going through some changes as a wall of tanks was recently removed. Gonzalez says that they were working on making more space for more stock since the store is doing good business wise.

“The parakeets are very easy to take care of and they love companionship,” Gonzalez said. “I love them and they make my job fun.”

Leftover fabric scraps sit on the librarian's desk which is bordered by plexiglass as a precaution towards the pandemic.
A librarian’s desk is bordered by plexiglass as a precaution against the coronavirus at the Katy Geissert Civic Center Library in Torrance. “A lot of people took time off and were able to take paid leave if they wanted to stay home,” Victoria Valverde, a Geissert librarian said. Photo by Safia Ahmed Photo credit: Safia Ahmed

4:25 p.m | Katy Geissert Civic Center Library, Torrance

By: Safia Ahmed

The second floor of the Katy Geissert Library is nonchalant as high schoolers and college students fill the seats of the library. As you enter, a female librarian greets you with a simple ‘hi’ and a smile.

Victoria Valverde, the librarian on shift, has faced many struggles throughout the pandemic, some pertaining to her work and working alongside fellow librarians.

“A lot of people took time off and were able to take paid leave if they wanted to stay home,” Valverde says.

Other struggles Valverde faced were personal fears, such as getting infected with COVID-19 and dealing with the isolation that comes with it. She had read stories about how COVID-19 patients had to be hospitalized and some would pass away without getting the chance to see their family members or to even say goodbye.

“In the past, getting infected with diseases wasn’t that big of a deal until now when it has become an everyday occurrence,” Valverde adds.

Even with these fears, Valverde says she hopes to gain back a sense of normalcy and access for the children and adults who come to the library.

“Teens and children had lost access to resources that they were able to have access to before such as meeting up face to face or going book browsing in the library,” Valverde says.

Valverde says she plans on using her job to provide crafts for children from preschool to high school to utilize their education from the comfort of their homes.

“Our library provides supplies and materials to encourage arts and improve learning,” Valverde says.

Valverde says her biggest inspiration to get up in the morning and come to the library is the patrons. Being able to witness the excitement on a child’s face as she directs them to a book is one of her motivators.

“I love my job and I wouldn’t want to change it even if I was offered a job elsewhere,” Valverde says.

Editors Note: Bylines were created for each story to give proper credit to the writers on Monday, Sept. 27 at 11:41 a.m.