It happened this fast: Shoppers frightened by the novel coronavirus ransacked grocery stores. Store managers shifted staff to restock shelves. The floral booth went empty. California's cut-flower industry imploded.
Sure, there are lots of nuances to this tale of tumbling economic dominoes. But at its core is the simple fact that few will buy a perishable luxury item when they fear for their lives. That could spell the end of many farms in California's $360 million cut-flower industry.
Since mid-March, sales have fallen an average of 85% on California's 225 flower and foliage farms, while the labor force has dropped by a similar proportion, according to the California Cut Flower Commission, a state agency that promotes the industry.
"We have companies that won't be here when it's over," said David Pruitt, chief executive of the commission.
The novel coronavirus has proved as lethal on an economic scale as it is on the human scale, hitting a highly vulnerable industry in the most precarious part of the season.
"The cut-flower industry has been battling offshore production for many years, and margins are razor thin; so it's kind of a tipping point," said Michael Mellano, CEO of Mellano & Co., a third-generation grower and wholesaler headquartered in Los Angeles' downtown Flower District.
"This is our busiest and most profitable time of the year," Mellano said. "So, it's absolutely the worst time for something like this to happen."
Mellano said he laid off more than 90% of his staff and went into survival mode, hoping to gear up his Southern California and Las Vegas distribution hub when the market revives.
There probably won't be a grand reopening for Lompoc-based Ocean View Flowers, which produced 40 million stems only two years ago. Its produce-growing parent company, Santa Barbara Farms, closed the flower operation permanently, according to company and industry sources.
Eufloria, whose boutique roses have adorned New Year's Day floats in Pasadena and thoroughbred horses at Churchill Downs, announced it would shut down its Nipomo farm on March 18. It laid off most of its workers and donated unsold stems to hospitals and nursing homes.