Americans in states that have imposed some of the most protracted and severe pandemic lockdowns are finally enjoying some level of normalcy. While the lifting of restrictions has brought a growing sense of relief, it’s clear the lockdowns have left a deep scar.
Virtually all states imposed restrictions on businesses in response to the spread of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus last year. While it remains unclear how much the lockdowns mitigated the spread of the disease, some states have been slower to relax and remove their restrictions than others.
California was among the first states to close and is among the last to relax restrictions, many of which are still in place.
Johnny McGrew, co-owner at Mio Vicino restaurant in Santa Clara, said the business reopened in June 2020 for outdoor dining. A month later, the state declared outdoor dining in the county in breach of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home order. Armed agents of the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control were dispatched to some local restaurants to tell them to return to take-out only, much to the exasperation of businesses and county officials.
Even now, McGrew is only allowed to fill half of his indoor seats.
“Some customers … they’re tired of the restrictions, they’re tired of wearing masks, but most people understand that we have to keep safe,” he said, noting that people are eager to return to some form of normal life.
Newsom said he may remove the state mask mandate on June 15. McGrew said he won’t require customers to wear face coverings if they’re not mandated. But to accommodate people who are now uncomfortable without masks, he said the cooks and servers will keep them on.
Most of his customers, he said, “have been very supportive.”
The Italian restaurant has been around for almost 30 years, but its sales dropped by roughly 75 percent when relying on take-out sales.
“During the time we were only doing take-out, some people even just came and bought gift certificates and didn’t want to take them. They said, ‘You guys can do whatever you want with them. We just want to contribute to help you guys get through this,’” McGrew said.
Holder’s Mission City Grill in Santa Clara was founded more than a half-century ago, but the lockdowns put it in a tough spot financially.
With the recent easing of restrictions, it’s doing much better.
“Some people are still uncomfortable going inside,” said Freddy Rodriguez, an assistant general manager for the restaurant. “It’s OK, we still want people to be careful. So people will still eat outside, especially during the weekend, when it gets busy inside.”
He sees that people are happy to come in because it’s starting to feel like it was before the pandemic.
“Just like today, I saw two of my regulars that used to come in almost three times, four times a week. And they just came in for the first time ever since the pandemic started,” he said. “I was happy. ‘You guys are sitting down inside instead of just doing to-go!’ They’re like, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘This is awesome!’ I can see new faces and old faces now.’”
For Nishank Vaish and his wife, Janki Thakkar, June 4 was the first time they had eaten out in more than a year. The two were feasting outdoors at Mod’s Pizza in San Jose.
“Feels good to be sitting under the sun,” Vaish said. “We have a good number of vaccinated cases now. We have been vaccinated as well. So I guess probably in the next six months or so, we should be back to normal. Or at least, moving toward normal.”
Prior to the pandemic, they ate out every Friday evening.
“We were always fond of outdoor dining, so this is kind of a win-win situation for us,” Thakkar said. “It’s good to be back out and enjoy a warm pizza rather than taking it home and heating it up again.”
The couple said they feel comfortable eating out as long as other people are keeping their distance and wearing masks where required.
A customer at Thirsty Bar in Santa Clara, who identified himself as Lee, said it was his first time in a bar in 14 months.
“It feels nice to be able to go and chat with a buddy outside and have a beer. It’s just a good feeling to get back to how things were,” the Santa Cruz County resident said.
Blair Pietrini and her husband, Landon, opened their restaurant Pietrini Pizza Napoletana in Los Alamitos just as the restrictions started to ease this year.
“The COVID situation actually helped us ease into the restaurant business at a slower pace, which for first-time restaurant owners was a bit of a blessing in disguise,” Pietrini said.
The second day after their opening, the regulations allowed for patio dining, and then, several weeks later, 25 percent indoor dining. They’re now allowed to seat at 50 percent capacity.
“It is exciting to see people, hungering for community, finally being able to gather. The sound of talking and laughing is a joy to hear in the restaurant,” she said.
However, Pietrini was aware of how hard the lockdowns were on those bearing the brunt of them.
“I believe overall, one of the most difficult challenges would be the continuously mixed messages we all received regarding the whole dining experience—what is safe, what is not?” she said.
“It’s kind of been like changing the rules of a game as soon as everyone learned the correct way to play. The official blows the whistle and says that these new rules aren’t gonna work after all, so we’re gonna change them again. Not only that, but we need to change the equipment previously required to play the game. In fact, the entire field where we play the game needs to be moved and altered as well or we will have to forfeit the game and perhaps disband the team.
“It was turned into a whole new ball game, but nobody seemed to understand what sport they were even playing.”
Her friends who are longtime business owners were trying to continuously comply with every new rule, “paying thousands to build patios to host their former indoor concerts that were previously shut down due to the pandemic,” she said.
Soon after, outdoor venues were prohibited from service, too.
“For some, this up and down and changing of the rules was unfortunately too much to recover from, and that is just tragic,” she said.
If the pandemic resulted in any good, it was to showcase the grit of some entrepreneurs.
“I know business owners who have exhibited amazing adaptability through creativity and much-needed flexibility and persistence,” Pietrini said.
Restaurants are likely to now be more mindful of sanitation, “cranking their cleaning practices up several notches,” she said.
Illinois had already closed its restaurants, on March 16, 2020, by the time a stay-at-home order was issued a few days later.
Trushar Patel has run Indian comfort food restaurant Rajun Cajun near the University of Chicago since 1993. Roughly half of his business came from the university and its students, dwindling to zero as the university switched to online learning. He’s been losing money ever since.
To keep his doors open, Patel dipped into his savings. His family helped as well, and the university—his landlord—voided three months of rent and even helped him out financially. The federal government provided a $20,000 loan.
Things started to get better in March when the city opened up and people began to come out more. His sales jumped 20 percent from the same time last year. But he still isn’t making any money.
Of a previous capacity of 24, which used to be filled every night, only six seats can now be offered in the restaurant. The city allows restaurants to fill up to 50 percent of their capacity, but that’s only part of the problem. Hardly any customers now want to dine in, Patel said. He thinks people are still a little worried about the virus.
“Whatever I’m making pretty much is going to the kitchen stuff right now. I have not taken a paycheck for the whole year,” he said.
Patel is now counting on a potential return to normalcy in August, when the university will return to in-person learning.
One of his customers, Kevin Simpson, was upbeat about reopening.
“It feels great to be back dining out and the sense of normalcy. I just missed the whole camaraderie of eating out and being able to dine-in somewhere,” he said.
Simpson said he’s not vaccinated for the time being.
“I’m not sure about it. I’m still on the fence a little bit,” he said. “I’ve never even had a flu shot before.”
Dionne Day, another customer, said she was at first “extremely worried” about contracting the virus when eating out, but now, “not as much.”
“I’d say 10 percent worried, because of the vaccination,” Day said.
Cara Ding in Chicago, Ilene Eng in San Francisco, and John Fredricks in Los Alamitos, California, contributed to this report.