Fairplex transforms into COVID-19 relief center after extensive layoffs

Fairplex, a nonprofit entertainment organization in Pomona, transformed into a community-driven COVID-19 relief center to help locals meet basic and critical needs. This follows after an extensive cut in staff — with 82 employees laid off — due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced on Nov. 6. The venue is left with only 28 full-time employees and the immediate future of Fairplex events are uncertain.

Because of the cancellation of several key events, such as the well-known Los Angeles County Fair, the venue could not financially support its staff.

“We were all heartbroken to have to see our colleagues go,” said Fairplex’s Director of Communications Renee Hernandez. “It’s hard to go into work knowing that your colleagues aren’t going to be there anymore, but financially there was just no way we could keep that amount of staff on without any events occurring.”

Career management services have been provided to help the laid-off employees transition to their new jobs. Health care benefits will also be extended through the end of the year.

Fairplex is not the only venue making reductions, as the entertainment and hospitality industries have been exponentially affected by the pandemic. Once the state and county started prohibiting large public gatherings mid-March, promoters and producers who were putting on events at Fairplex had to either postpone or cancel entirely.

Despite the significant decrease in staff, Fairplex is continuing operations with limited capacity through a partnership with the county and local food pantry to serve the community.

“Since its beginning in 1922, Fairplex and the LA County Fair has had a community-driven mission,” said Fairplex’s Chief Financial Officer Walter Marquez. “Whether it’s through entertainment, education or community-based work that we do, we know we are part of a neighborhood and a larger community that is our foundation. So, for us to have moved from an entertainment center to one that is serving the needs of the community through COVID assistance, childcare at the CDC and food distribution with the food pantries — it was an automatic response.”

Fairplex, situated just 4 miles northeast of campus, also serves as a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site where over 54,174 tests were initiated between April and November.

Since April, Fairplex serves as a COVID-19 relief center, offering free testing and various resources. (Courtesy of Renee Hernandez)

Additionally, the nearby Sheraton Fairplex Hotel has transformed into a medical shelter for anyone who is waiting for the test results or has no place to go after testing positive. The shelter is run by the county and will continue through the end of the year.

The Fairplex venue also partnered with Sowing Seeds for Life, a local food pantry, to replace the National Hot Rod Association Drag Strip with a drive-thru food pantry that has now served nearly 1.6 million pounds of free food to 132,916 individuals.

This collaboration has been active since April and is organized on the first and third Wednesday of every month. Though its plans for 2021 are unclear, the drive-thru food pantry will continue through the end of the year.

“Volunteers come out to help daily, and it’s just great to see this as a well-oiled machine now,” Hernandez said. “In the beginning, we were serving up to 2,000 cars per day and you would see them all line up along the street to get in because people are in need. Now, we’re doing 800 to 1,000 cars per day.”

The food donations to the community helped many locals who are out of work, hungry or do not have the means to provide for their families.

“We have a special place in our heart at Sowing Seeds for everyone associated with Cal Poly as we also had a mobile food pantry serving there for a long time,” said Director of Sowing Seeds for Life Fran Robertson. “The experience at the Fairplex has been an incredible example of how each person and group brought a special ability to the task at hand, and it has been the definition of collaboration.”

Not only is the venue providing food to the public, but it is also assisting in childcare. Fairplex’s Child Development Center has had many new openings due to parents either working from home or being laid off and no longer needing childcare. To fill the spaces, the center has been providing free childcare services for essential workers like first responders, law enforcement officers and hospital staff. Over $500,000 was raised so that essential workers would not have to burden the cost while serving the community.

To stay afloat amid the pandemic, Fairplex is adjusting through drive-thru events. Recently, the county approved a new event that started Nov. 6 and will continue through Jan. 3. The Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday will be an externally produced drive-thru experience with no in-person contact.

Jordan Hilst, a fourth-year liberal studies student, expressed her disappointment in discovering the cancellation of in-person Fairplex events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hilst has attended Fairplex for the past two years and enjoyed her experience each time.

“Even though Fairplex has been shut down, I am looking forward to The Elf on the Shelf’s Magical Holiday drive-thru experience,” Hilst said. “I am grateful Fairplex has given our community an opportunity to get in the Christmas spirit in the safety of our own cars and still have a great time.”

In addition to the magical Christmas drive-thru experience, the venue will host a drive-thru Jurassic Quest. The Jurassic Quest is normally a walk-thru experience, but due to local health guidelines, the over 70 animatronic dinosaurs will be seen from inside the car, giving families an opportunity to leave their homes and see something fun. The quest will be held in February 2021.

“We’re just excited to see activity on the campus again,” Hernandez said. “We’ve had our different things with the county, but to see us having an entertainment event here again and having families come will be so nice. Watching people come through and have a good time, especially during this challenging time, is rewarding.”


With reports from Brynn Sherbert

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