Head Rush 

Amid virus panic-buying, dispensaries are selling at the curb, but the rules are changing on an almost daily basis.

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Garden of Eden is serving customers through curbside pickup, and is ramping up to enable pre-ordering and pre-payment. But since an initial spike in sales, business has taken a big downturn, according to Eden Enterprises CEO Shareef El-Sissi. In the days after the state issued its stay-at-home order, people rushed to stock up in anticipation that they might not be able to buy cannabis for the duration of the crisis. At that point, El-Sissi said “volumes were unparalleled.” After cannabis was deemed “essential,” he said sales had nosedived, and he expected them to be down by about 25 percent, presumably because people are opting for delivery.


Back and Forth

Following the March 16 shelter-in-place order in Santa Cruz County, officials were quick to decree that customers could no longer enter the physical premises of any and all dispensaries, or “congregate or gather in a store.”

“We made a local decision to allow our cannabis businesses to continue operations while also trying to minimize contact,” writes Deputy County Administrative Officer Melodye Serino. “We are all in a very fluid and dynamic environment that calls for adaptive leadership at all levels in our community.”

To abide by the state’s social-distancing recommendations and to ensure the safety of workers and customers, the HSA instructed local dispensaries to immediately begin conducting sales through curbside pickup or delivery only. Santa Cruz County cannabis retailers had to adapt almost overnight, dramatically changing the way they conduct daily business. With curbside ordering, customers place their orders online or over the phone, and a dispensary employee meets them outside the shop with their cannabis, and takes their payment. No browsing, perusing, smelling, handling, or in-depth consulting is involved.

County officials told local cannabis shops that they could only keep operating if they adhered to a laundry list of provisions, including rigid anti-congregation and social-distancing protocols, and ensuring that outside cannabis transactions occur under video surveillance or security officer supervision.

Khalil Moutawakkil, CEO of KindPeoples, the county’s largest and first state-legal dispensary, said he doesn’t blame county officials, but he’d like to see them treat his business the same way they treat the area’s other retail businesses.

“The County of Santa Cruz deemed us to be ‘essential,’ but with additional restrictions that are not imposed on other retail businesses, like grocery stores or liquor stores,” Moutawakki said. “We feel blessed to remain open during this time of crisis, but we’d like to see some consistency.”

For 10 days under the curbside directive, business was good, customers seemed happy and more comfortable, and things were running smoothly. Then everything changed again. Just over a week after Serino and Cannabis Licensing Manager Sam Loforti ordered all local dispensaries to conduct their business outside, they ordered them back in. To “minimize contact” and adhere to “required security considerations,” Serino, Loforti, and the county announced that cannabis retailers would have to return to indoor sales by Saturday, March 28.

“During inspections, our staff have seen violations including large congregations out front of retail spaces — with no social distancing protocols being monitored or managed, awnings erected outside which may not allow for security surveillance, and even an ATM machine outside creating all kinds of security risks,” Serino wrote in a letter to local dispensaries.

Dispensaries were given mere days to move their operations back indoors, and completely overhaul the way they conduct their daily business — again.

Once the dust settled, and following inspections by Serino and Loforti, some dispensaries were able to keep doing curbside sales depending on their indoor space, available space for line control and management, and the availability of security and staff. Dispensaries with no curbside delivery service will allow clients into their interior spaces for brief consultations and transactions on a very limited basis.

“We evaluated businesses on a site specific basis to assess if curbside options could continue,” Serino wrote. “These are stressful times and there are bound to be stumbles as we make decisions in a constantly changing environment.”

And delivery is booming. Curbstone Exchange has been inundated with delivery requests. Hembree’s fleet of 3 delivery vehicles, and his team of dispatch operators are in constant motion, packaging and fulfilling orders throughout the county.

“Deliveries are full every day,” he said. “We’ve had to schedule deliveries for the next day. It’s not like you can’t get a delivery, but you may have to wait a little.” 3 Bros Santa Cruz has seen an explosion in delivery requests; in fact, until this week, 3 Bros had no designated full-time delivery drivers. But things are changing fast for the laid-back and Westside shop with the motto “Good Vibes, High Tides.”

“We’re doing more business than ever — close to 50 deliveries a day,” said 3 Bros budtender, Michelle. “Demand keeps getting higher; way more than before. Things are a bit better now that we have someone just doing deliveries. We need more time for deliveries though. We’re backed up.”

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