The most iconic business in Santa Cruz County is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, owned and operated by the Santa Cruz Seaside Co. for more than a century.
The company’s President and CFO Karl Rice is also part of the Canfield family that has managed the Boardwalk since the 1950s. As president, Rice has been at the center of the Seaside Co.’s experience with the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown. We talked with him about this unprecedented period in the Boardwalk’s history, and what he sees when he looks to the future.
Traditionally, the summer is prime Boardwalk season. How do you see this one unfolding?
KARL RICE: We’ve been closed since mid-March, and we remain largely closed. I say “largely” because starting over Memorial Day weekend, we did open one or two food locations here at the Boardwalk, consistent with the county’s shelter-in-place orders and consistent with state guidelines on reopening.
Technically, the Boardwalk is starting to reopen, but we’re obviously watching that very carefully. Even though we have a couple of food locations open, it in no way resembles what most people would think of as the Boardwalk being open.
Are you awaiting cues from the state and/or county? Or are you putting together business plan to reopen?
It’s all of the above. As we sit here today and think about what the summer looks like, I suspect it’s a similar thought process that many other businesses are going through. There’s just a tremendous amount of uncertainty with what the summer is going to hold. And here at the Boardwalk, we really don’t have a good sense of when we can return to any level of what we might consider to be normal.
We are accepting of the fact that it’s going to be a while before we see what we consider to be a busy, Saturday-in-July type of crowd here at the Boardwalk. I think likely we’re not going to see that here this summer.
Like every other business, we are working hard to try to find ways to survive and bring our business back. It’s going to be a gradual process, undoubtedly. But internally, we’re working on our own plans, strategies, and protocols to ensure that our employees and our guests, when they are allowed back, are safe and protected. We are engaging with city and council officials as we normally do, trying to work collaboratively to support them as they try to navigate this like everybody else.
As a company that’s been around 100 years, we have a pretty well-oiled machine. At any given time of year, we know exactly what we need to be doing to be successful. But this has tested us in ways that we never thought we would experience.
Have you had to furlough or lay off people on your full-time, year-round staff?
In addition to the seasonal folks we bring in, when we’re not open, there are no hours for them. On the full-time side, we carry a little over 300 people full-time year-round. And of those folks, we’ve had to furlough quite a few of them, but we’ve done everything in our power to take care of them. While we have furloughed some of our employees, we still are covering everyone’s health care costs.
The site of the Boardwalk historically has been open at all times even when the attractions and the shops are closed. Are you now keeping people off the grounds entirely?
When the pandemic started back in March, we closed our gates. As you mentioned, ordinarily even when the businesses are closed here at the Boardwalk, you as a visitor can physically walk in and through the Boardwalk. To me, that’s always been one of the most special aspects of the Boardwalk. Whether we’re open or not, you can come in and enjoy the scene and the atmosphere.
But certainly, for the first time in my lifetime, you can come here on a sunny day during the week and the gates are closed. That’s certainly not a sight we like to see here. We did that out of caution to keep our facilities protected and to keep our employees protected.
We have started to ease off on that. If you come this weekend, you can expect to walk through a little bit more of our park even if the majority of the businesses are not operating.
Are you focused now on 2021? Or are you still making plans for 2020?
We’d certainly like to see a little more activity as 2020 rolls on. I’m optimistic that we’ll get some activity, but it will be nothing like we’re used to. For the most part, our initial focus was to protect our employees and our company, and get through 2020. We’re doing that, but we are looking to 2021 and trying to plan accordingly. 2021, in the context of this pandemic, still feels like it’s really far away. There are so many things that can happen and evolve between now and then. But I remain optimistic. People want to be here. We have guests who come here year after year, generation after generation. So long as we’re taking the appropriate steps to ensure people’s safety, I think those people are going to come back.
Obviously, many businesses depend on the tourist trade, and that tourist trade is non-existent right now, or at least a shell of what it once was. It’s devastating for all those businesses, the Boardwalk included. Not that I speak for everyone in the tourist industry, but I can only imagine that everyone wants the tourist trade to pick up again. The challenge is finding the right way to do that, a way that’s safe.
What has dealing with this pandemic been like for you personally?
Any business leader, no matter what your position is in the company, it’s a big challenge to go through something like this. But when there’s a family connection to it, and that extra emotional connection, it makes it that much more intense. To think generations of my family who have owned this business and worked hard to build it, and more importantly, to maintain it and care for it, we look at this place as a legacy that we’re trying to continue for our family and the community.
It hits you in the gut pretty hard when that’s threatened or when there’s a chance it’s going to be taken away or fundamentally changed forever. So, it’s not been an easy time for me or our family. But the other difficult part of this is that we treat our employees as if they’re family with us. I stand by that. And everyone else in my family fundamentally believes that and tries to act in that manner. When you have to furlough employees and see your employees struggle to get by and go through stressful situations as a result of what’s going on, it hits you that much harder.
When I look back at the last couple of months and look forward, we’re not out of this yet. There are good lessons to be learned. But undoubtedly, it’s an incredibly difficult time. And I certainly hope to not have a challenge like this ever come across me in my tenure here.
The Boardwalk has announced the reopening of a few food vendors, including Marini’s Candies, the Barbary Coast Restaurant, and more, with limited access to the Boardwalk grounds from 11am to 7pm daily. For more information, go to beachboardwalk.com/coronavirus.
Read our full summer preview coverage.