(Left) Tractor grading land at Las Palmas Swap Meet in Calexico. (Right) Mexicali graffiti artist Star27 (Etelberto "Beto" Ortiz Aguilar)
painted a desert scene mural on the staircase of the Las Palmas Swap Meet office and restaurant in Calexico. Las Palmas opened
for business on Sept. 16 after being closed for six months. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRIS MARTINEZ
CALEXICO — Although free of the fanfare of Mexican Independence Day, Septiembre de 16, it was likely a welcome sight for patrons and vendors alike to see Las Palmas Swap Meet reopen after being closed some six months due to COVID-19.
Gates to the 50-plus-year-old swap meet were to have opened at 6 a.m. Sept. 16 as the city and county cleared the way for limited operation of the business, which will open again from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Vendor unloading and loading hours will be 4 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For now, Las Palmas at 1305 Ollie Ave., will only operate at around 25 percent of its normal capacity Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, said Chris Martinez, operations manager for the family-owned business started by his grandfather, Raul Estrada.
“I’m excited and super nervous,” Martinez said regarding opening day during an interview with this newspaper Sept. 15. The opening occurred after the Calexico Chronicle’s deadline.
“Are people going to respect the rules? Will vendors be cooperative, follow the rules? … I think everybody is ready for us (to be open). The community is ready for it, too. Everybody has been caged up,” Martinez said.
The 40-acre site that can accommodate more than 400 vendors has been reduced for the time being to a 20-acre footprint with from 80 to 100 vendors invited, Martinez said.
He expected there will likely be 70 to 80 vendors show up this coming weekend.
Vendors and customers can expect a very streamlined operation, as a number of structures have been torn down and the site graded in preparation for the opening, with a facelift given to the office and restaurant area. More renovations will occur, but Martinez said the idea was to get the business up and running and making some money before more work is completed.
Martinez said vendors are coming in from Mexico and throughout California, from as far north as San Francisco and Sacramento.
To account for social distancing and other measures required by the city and county Public Health Department to reopen, vendors will be limited to one stall each of 20 by 30 feet with a 10-foot gap, Martinez said.
Only two gates will be open at the site to funnel vendors and patrons through, and all those who enter will be required to wear facial coverings. Vendors and customers will not be allowed inside unless they have a mask.
Martinez said admission into the swap meet is $1 and a mask can be purchased at the gate for $1 as well.
As far as what vendors were to be on hand, Martinez said all the “classic swap meet” items should be available.
During this limited operation, there will be no hot dog carts on site, but the restaurant will be open. He said cooked food will be available soon as the restaurant is expecting new kitchen equipment by the end of the week, but on Sept. 16 only drinks and cold sandwiches were being sold.
Martinez said all vendors are being required to have hand sanitizer at their stalls, and if they do not, Las Palmas will provide it to them at a charge.
Although there is a limit on the number of vendors in place, as of Sept. 16 there was not a limit to the number of customers who would be let in, Martinez said.
The plan, he said, is to have police and fire officials on hand throughout the day to monitor the number of people who show up and then reassess after the weekend crowds whether a headcount needs to be applied.
Martinez and members of his family met with Calexico police and fire officials and the city manager to go over some issues before the opening of operations. Martinez said Fire Chief Diego Favila gave the all-clear to open and signed off on all inspections and corrections that had to be made tied to the city’s swap meet ordinance passed in fall 2019.
Las Palmas had some lingering fire and municipal code violations it had to get cleared up before reopening that it attended to during the closure, Martinez said.
Some of the new additions acquired during the closure include a new public-address sound system, Martinez said. He added that as operations continue, Las Palmas plans to add more amenities, included its new restaurant menu, and a place both onsite and online where Las Palmas merchandise like shirts bearing a logo designed by Mexicali graffiti artist Star27 and sombreros or sun hats can be purchased.
In coming months, there will be a new “Storage Wars”-like public storage auction taking place. In the past, vendors could buy from storage units left unpaid at the site, but starting in November, Martinez said the public would be invited to take part in the auctions as well.
Martinez said there are also plans in the coming months, COVID permitting, for city-led events at the site and he wants to have some sort of Día De Los Muertos festival at grounds.
In reopening, Martinez said his family wanted to give a “huge shout out.”
“It’s a family-owned business. My brothers, sister, mom and dad, cousins, all helped push this reopening,” Martinez said.