Owners and employees of Midpeninsula businesses that will be allowed to operate again under the modified shelter-at-home order that will take effect May 4 are expressing cautious optimism at the prospect of getting back to work.
Under the ordinance, "outdoor businesses" — such as plant nurseries and garden centers as well as service providers like landscapers and gardeners — plus construction firms and commercial real estate transactions can resume operations. All will need to abide by social-distancing and sanitation protocols that will keep customers and employees safe from the coronavirus, including requirements for face coverings and limits on the numbers of customers in a space at one time.
Israel Herrera, a gardener for his father's landscaping company in Mountain View for over 15 years, was surprised to hear the news Wednesday but said he's looking forward to starting to work again — and even to building the business.
Before the shelter-in-place order, Herrera said his company of five people was experiencing a labor shortage, citing expensive housing costs as one of the main factors it was hard to find people to hire. Oftentimes he couldn't take on as many clients as he wanted to due to being short staffed.
And the stay-at-home order didn't help. Since March, Herrera said most of the work came to halt.
"We're fortunate enough that some clients were willing to still pay us even though we weren't showing up," he said.
With the new ease of restrictions, Herrera is looking to get right back to work and hopefully will be able to bring on additional staff.
"Maybe now there's an opportunity to hire new people," he said.
The shutdown didn't entirely stop business for retail nurseries, which have been fulfilling phone and online orders for plants and garden supplies through curbside pickup and delivery. The owner of Leafy, a nursery on Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto, said online revenue from deliveries of plants has helped keep his business afloat but not profitable.
Providing delivery services required the store to hire people to make those deliveries.
"Those are all costs, and it's very time consuming," said Ken, who asked that his last name not be published.
With the new ease in restrictions, Ken said he wants to start offering curbside pickup. But he's erring on the side of caution when it comes to fully opening his doors of both of his storefronts in Palo Alto and San Jose.
His stores have limited space and won't accommodate customers at a 6-foot distance. And the current data for COVID-19 cases still aren't very reassuring, he said.
"I know some stores are opening up, but I just don't think the stats are telling me to open up," he said. "We're definitely more on the side of caution."
In any case, he doesn't think people will immediately be willing to go outside to shop as they've already been increasingly attuned to online shopping, even before the pandemic.
"I think people are still going to stay home and see how it goes instead of everyone just coming out and shopping," he said. "I don't think that's gonna happen for now."
Mark Pendleton, manager of Brookside Orchids in Portola Valley, said the store has continued operating its orchid boarding, the backbone of the business, and likewise relied on deliveries to keep revenue coming in.
While the boarding and deliveries have helped keep the business afloat, he still had to reduce workers' hours and pay.
"Many of us have landlords who don't take IOUs," he said.
Returning to walk-in trade will hopefully allow all staff to return to full-time work and wages, he said.
"And get back fully to what we do," he said.
"We'll be very glad — please put the emphasis on 'very' — to see our customers come back in," he said.
Realtors are also looking forward to better business under the revised order.
For the first two weeks of the shutdown, the entire market, including active listings and sold homes, dropped 40%, said Realtor Xin Jiang of Compass Realty, in Palo Alto. She didn't see any new listings during that time. Home prices also declined 20%, though the highest-value homes were not being put up for sale.
The market has slowly been opening up as people are gaining more confidence, Jiang said, and she expects the volume of available homes and activity at every level of the market will now increase.
Michael Repka, CEO, managing broker and general counsel for Palo Alto-based DeLeon Realty, said the revised order will give Realtors more latitude to get homes ready to show — a key component in sales.
"Normal preparation was held back," he said. Most homes require contractors and landscapers to build, repair, landscape or upgrade a residence. Neither type of business was allowed to work under the previous order.
"Now we can show all properties," he said. Before, agents could only take prospective buyers on a virtual tour of a property, unless no one was living in the home. The new rules allow agents to show occupied properties provided they follow certain protocols.
Repka also believes that people are feeling more hopeful about the pandemic. Before, they saw their world becoming increasingly constricted: the shelter order, a concern over food shortages, and the lack of a treatment or cure for COVID-19.
But good news on all of those fronts this week, from the lessening restrictions to protecting the food supply chain and news of possible treatments for the disease are all helping to increase optimism, he said.
"People are feeling there are more options. We're getting past this," he said. "I'm already hearing from buyers. It's going to have a very positive impact. Inventory will increase in a few weeks."
Businesses catering to outdoor activities are also exploring the possibility of launching at least parts of their operations. At Shoreline Lake Boathouse in Mountain View, where everything had closed down, the business is considering renting its paddle boats, which can be wiped down with disinfectant, and offering a selection of foods in picnic baskets for people to enjoy around the lake, spokesman Evan Berglund said.
The business is dependent on a decision by the city of Mountain View, which owns Shoreline Park, he said.
"Everything is vague right now and it will take until Monday to get things figured out," he said.
The new policy also permits use of shared outdoor spaces so long as people can maintain social distance.
Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District preserves in San Mateo County will reopen on weekends starting May 9 and 10, spokeswoman Leigh Ann Gessner said. The county's public health officer, Scott Morrow, had previously asked the district to close the preserves on the weekends, she said.
Midpen's preserves span Santa Clara, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and the district is closely following directives in all three.
"We have worked really hard to keep the public preserves open as much as possible. We are doing all we can to have needed physical and mental health outlets" for people, Gessner said.
Most parking lots at the preserves are open to the public, but there are some limitations. Rancho San Antonio has two lots that are closed to reduce the number of visitors and some loop trails have been made one way only to increase physical distance.
"We are definitely getting an uptick in visitation," she said, adding that it is creating some challenges as some people are new to the preserves and aren't familiar with trail etiquette.
Two popular preserves will continue to remain closed: Windy Hill will stay closed at the request of the town of Portola Valley and Teague Hill is also currently closed because its one short public trail ties in with adjacent Huddart County Park, which is closed. It will reopen when San Mateo County parks can welcome back visitors, Gessner said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.