At 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, California will retire many of the pandemic-related restrictions that crippled restaurants and other businesses for much of the last year. Restaurants will be able to return to 100% capacity, host parties larger than six at a single table and do away with social distancing requirements between tables and patrons. And self-service restaurants, such as buffets, can return to business as usual.
The June 15 reopening of the economy comes as daily coronavirus case numbers in the state continue to drop and more people get vaccinated.
Chefs and restaurant owners are approaching the milestone in a myriad of ways; some remain cautious while others are eager to welcome the return to normal.
“I’m ready, I’m prepared, I’m grateful,” said Fortune Southern, chef-owner of Barbie Q restaurant in Encino. “It’s going to be a bit of a transition and I’m a little nervous, but I’m looking forward to more capacity, more interactions with customers and people laughing and eating.”
During a virtual town hall meeting late Thursday, Los Angeles County Health Officer Dr. Muntu Davis and Los Angeles County Department of Public Health Director of Environmental Health Liza Frias outlined some of the protocols for patrons and employees moving forward.
Unvaccinated people in indoor public settings, such as retail, restaurants and theaters, will still be required to wear a mask. Employees also will be required to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status, and adhere to social-distancing guidelines pending new rules from the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health.
Businesses have a couple of options when it comes to verifying someone’s vaccination status. They can either ask for proof (by showing a vaccination card), post signs that outline the mask requirement for unvaccinated patrons, or require everyone to wear a mask.
Dana Slatkin, executive chef and owner of Violet Bistro School & Shop in Westwood, is looking forward to finally becoming a neighborhood restaurant. Violet was open for just eight days before the March 2020 pandemic shutdown.
“We are cautiously optimistic," Slatkin said. "Because we were a brand-new restaurant, we weren’t really used to doing things in any one way, so we were able to stay on our toes and just keep dancing."
The restaurant quickly pivoted to takeout and started offering virtual cooking classes and delivering ingredients to students’ homes last year.
“Now we feel like we’re ready to deal with any challenge that comes our way, but we’re dealing with two different kinds of customers too,” she said. "There’s the customer who is thrilled to be out and the ones who act entitled to every bit of pampering that they feel like they didn’t get last year.”
Slatkin said she’s still debating how she will handle verifying a diner’s vaccination status. For now, her team will ask that diners wear masks when walking through the restaurant.
“I just don’t want to jump back into this feeling of exuberance before it’s time,” she added.
Like many restaurant owners I spoke to, Slatkin is having a hard time hiring staff for her restaurant. She held a job fair and posted ads on culinary websites but the response wasn't what she hoped. She still has positions to fill.
To prepare for an increase in capacity, Slatkin bought more tables and chairs, rearranged the furniture and ordered more food, but she’s having trouble with her vendors as well. “For the last month, we’ve been having supply issues as we try to order more food — from the farmers market to the meat supplier to the wine companies,” she said. “Everyone seems to be having snags in their supply chains.”
Slatkin plans to hold off on allowing 100% capacity, at least in the beginning, and she also adjusted the model of her in-person cooking classes, which resumed about two weeks ago. Instead of having students all prepare a group meal, she’s focusing on more demonstrations from instructors with limited hands-on participation.
Southern, who has both indoor and outdoor seating at her barbecue restaurant, also said the Tuesday return to 100% capacity seems a little sudden.
“I’m still going to probably not have 100% right away and have more space in between, just so customers feel safe,” she said. “Within a month or two, we’ll gradually ease back to 100%.”
A year and a half of rapidly changing, sometimes conflicting guidelines and restrictions has prompted feelings of unease for Percell Keeling, who owns Simply Wholesome restaurant in Windsor Hills. Keeling has kept his dining room and patio closed since March 2020, offering only takeout.
“Today they will say one thing and tomorrow they retract that and say something else,” he said. “As a business owner I can feel the pressure and stress building up but it’s like you’re damned if you do [open] and damned if you don’t.”
For now, the Simply Wholesome dining room and patio will remain closed, but Keeling does plan to allow more people into the restaurant to order takeout and to wait for orders. And there will no longer be an employee stationed at the door, monitoring how many people enter the space.
While he doesn’t have a set plan for verifying people’s vaccination status, he does know that he won’t be requiring his employees to ask diners directly.
“I don’t want that drama or stress on my staff if someone goes off on them because we asked about a mask or if you were vaccinated,” he said. “I’m just trying my best to keep things positive while we work our way through this whole ordeal.”
Camila Perry, owner of the Oaks Tavern bar in Sherman Oaks, also is trying to keep up with the shifting guidelines.
After being closed for nearly a year, she installed a kitchen in February and started offering a small food menu to increase the total number of patrons allowed. Anticipating Tuesday's relaxed restrictions, Perry scheduled five employees for that evening instead of the usual one.
“I’m hesitant to get full-on ready because the county has always been more restrictive when the state opened up,” she said. “But I prepped my staff and said if the guidelines come out and we can have bar service again, we’ll be ready.”
While Perry said she makes sure the bar never runs out of Jameson on a Friday night, she is prepared with backup bottles for a busy week. She plans to move some of the outdoor tables back inside, push tables closer together and to take down the plastic dividers installed to keep patrons separated.
“It’s been a constant battle for us to hammer the rules at customers who come in and don’t follow them,” she said. “It will be nice to relax a little bit and stop playing mom and dad to the customers.”
Perry said she’ll likely post the vaccination rules and have her door person verbally relay them to customers before they walk in.
“We’ve had a hard time getting everyone back to work and having more people do the same job with the same sales, but I’m just really excited to return to a sense of normalcy,” she said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.