Social distancing rules eased late last week in Santa Clara County, but if you return to the office, the mall and your favorite restaurants you will encounter a strange new world that could last for months, or perhaps permanently.
No more cash. No more happy hours. Or large-group meals. No more break rooms, or conference rooms. No more handshakes. Or hugs. No open offices.
No kiosks or furniture or food courts in the malls. Shop by reservation. Sanitizer stations are everywhere. One-way arrows direct your browsing. Forehead thermometers are at the door and there are no more jars of candy in the lobby. Working and learning from home.
Not every business and restaurant opened right away. Some are scrambling to make extensive renovations or add new equipment and signage. Some are taking time to retrain employees in new public health protocols. Many are proceeding cautiously, unsure whether customers will return. Others have simply called it quits.
The county Board of Supervisors spent much of June 5 at their home office or living room hosting a virtual, live-streamed series of public panel discussions by groups of business executives, educators, retailers and restaurateurs whose operations have been in various stages of lockdown for nearly three months.
They shared reports that the pandemic was indeed “flattening” in the county. But instead of cheers and optimism, they heard voices of caution and professionalism, in a strained atmosphere of resignation, uncertainty and some pain.
County Executive Jeff Smith and Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody urged restraint and offered no end in sight. “It’s an enormously dangerous virus,” warned Smith. “We’re in a great place, but we have to be very very careful as we slowly reopen.”
Reminding everyone of the need to continue using face coverings and maintaining social distancing, Cody said these practices aim “to prevent COVID infections to the greatest extent that we can so we can prevent death and enable business, healthcare, education and all other sectors that are reopening to be safe and to feel safe for their patrons and their patients, and finally to protect vulnerable communities who are at the highest risk of exposure, hospitalization and death.”
The following businesses were allowed to reopen toward the end of last week with social distancing protocols and safety requirements:
- Outdoor dining at restaurants and other facilities that prepare and serve food
- Retail and shopping centers for in-store shopping
- All manufacturing, warehousing and logistics
- House cleaning and other no-contact in-home services
- Low-to-no-contact service businesses including shoe repair, watch repair and other similar services
- Pet grooming, without regard to medical necessity
- Childcare, summer camps, summer school, and all other educational or recreational programs (rather than just those able to work, which is already allowed), in stable groups of up to 12 children
- Religious services, cultural ceremonies, weddings, funerals, protests, and other constitutionally protected gatherings, but only outdoors, in groups no larger than 25
- All outdoor recreational activities that do not involve physical contact including lane swimming, hiking, tennis, camping, golf, Frisbee, etc.
- Drive-in theaters and other car-based gatherings
Drive-by commencements, birthdays and other family celebrations highlighted communities and neighborhoods through the Santa Clara Valley.
Returning to a new normal for many business owners isn’t as easy as unlocking the front door, flipping the open/closed sign and turning on the lights.
As Dan Pham—owner of four San Jose restaurants, including Paper Plane in downtown—told county supervisors at the hearing last week, it can get complicated. He said county permit approvals don’t match businesses’ need to move quickly. The restaurateur recommended expedited approvals of COVID-required alterations, low-to-no-cost same-day authorization for safety improvements, and additions such as to-go windows, awnings, sidewalk upgrades, counters, hand-wash stations, occupancy limits. Pham said he and other restaurants are doing everything they can just to survive.
In addition to the public health restrictions and possible wariness by local customers, the downtown restaurants face no major local events, no conventions, no business travel and a shrinking downtown workforce.
Pham said he had to furlough nearly 90 of his 100 employees, and set up a small to-go business during the 82-day shutdown. He rented out kitchen space for food truck vendors, and prepared grocery kits and meals for former employees.
He said he lost about half of his business in that period.
“Our goal is to basically survive until things return to normal,” he said “Only when the virus is deemed controllable by vaccine, general immunity or therapeutic treatments, can we really rebuild what we thought of as normal.”
In the coming months, Pham anticipates having to lay off staff. “There are going to be huge cuts in terms of jobs in this industry,” he cautioned. “The faucet has turned to a drip and all of our fixed costs remain the same. The reality is, the economy is going to take a huge hit. I would guess you are going to see 50 percent of restaurants not survive.”
Pham said he refuses to throw in the towel, however.
County health officials, he said, should give businesses guidelines on how restaurants can operate in what he called “the pre-vaccine period,” and for safe work environments for employees and safe interaction between servers and customers.
“There is a whole system of folks that are affected by this,” said Pham. “And it’s going to take a whole lot of things to help us out.”
Outdoor eating may offer hope for many restaurants, at least until the winter rains.
“We are scrambling now to institute the new rules and regulations to open up our patio space,” Randy Musterer, CEO of Sushi Confidential, told the county board.
Westfield Valley Fair Mall opened a new, expanded section of the mall on March 6, and had to close its doors 11 days later. Sue Newsom of Valley Fair told the supervisors that the mall is recreating its entire shopping experience to accommodate the pandemic.
She said the new look mall will be reopening soon, but did not volunteer a date. She said she expected about 30 percent of the stores will open initially.
Simon Management, which operates Valley Fair, has reopened 60 malls in California this month, and has another four to go.
“We have more than enough space for customers to shop and for employees,” Newsom said. She said new occupancy limits have been set for each store, shopper traffic flow lanes have been established along the mall concourse, and furniture and retail carts have been removed. Numerous sanitary stations have been installed, she said.
A new phone-based shopper reservation system is being put in place.
Play areas, and water fountains have been removed.
Stan Vuckovich, CEO of KBM Hogue, an office furniture dealer and workplace design firm, said he reopened his Sacramento office last week and will reopen soon in San Jose.
“Planning for workplaces is going to change fundamentally,” he predicted.
His San Jose office will feature a six-foot seating plan, and he will use alternating weeks for many staff members. There will be temperature screening at the entrance, and restrooms will have touchless soap dispensers. Instead of an open floor plan, the work space is divided into areas of six or eight workers, Vuckovich said.
When workers return to manufacturing and distribution sites, and stores and restaurants, they may face new problems outside of the workplace: a lack of child care.
Jolene Smith, CEO of First 5 Santa Clara, said large and small childcare centers across the state are “in crisis” because of the pandemic.
The expense and challenges posed by public health protocols will close daycares to those who need them most, she warned. Meanwhile, She added families and daycare centers desperately need government funds to stay afloat, especially those that serve families who earn too much to qualify for federal child care programs or subsidies.