June 15 marked California's reopening day and, with it, an official relaxation of the state's COVID-19 restrictions. But while the state has lifted capacity limits, physical distancing rules and mask restrictions for vaccinated individuals, the rules on the ground didn't look a whole lot different on Tuesday.
At Palo Alto Bicycles on University Avenue, customers were still expected to wear masks. Jeff Selzer, the store's general manager, said that it's been difficult to fully understand state, county and city public health guidelines for businesses. Amid a lack of communication and confusing government websites, Selzer decided to err on the side of caution. He taped a paper onto his storefront sign that stated as much: "Due to the lack of clear direction for local and state authorities regarding mask requirements and in acknowledgement our own lack of credentials in the fields of infectious disease and public policy, Palo Alto Bicycles will continue to require employees and politely request customers to wear masks when in the store. Thank you."
"The fact that today is such a major, significant event for the state and it's hard to find official information is frustrating," Selzer said. "There's all kinds of news reports out, but what about what the state or county or city officially says? That's been harder to find."
"My understanding is that my consumer can walk in today without a mask as long as they've been fully vaccinated, but how do you verify that? That's the first unanswered question," Selzer said.
Overall, businesses owners said Tuesday, the state's reopening has brought a mixture of confusion, anticipation and joy.
Lubna Lassaque, a managing partner of Chantal Guillon on University, echoed Selzer's confusion. To reach a definitive answer about what to do with her business, she emailed to schedule a meeting with a representative from the Santa Clara County Public Health Department.
Pastry shop Mademoiselle Colette's owner Debora Ferrand said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the city always send a letter about new updates to businesses, but this time there was nothing.
"We don't know if employees can take off the masks or not, but overall, we are very happy to be able to see our customers' faces again."
Some business owners have safety concerns about unvaccinated customers coming in without masks. While unvaccinated individuals are still required to wear masks in indoor public settings, it's ultimately up to businesses to choose how to enforce the rule. But Steve Oberhauser, an owner of shoe repair shop The Cobblery on California Avenue in Palo Alto, said that there really isn't a way to police it.
While he is looking forward to having fewer confrontations with customers who refuse to wear the previously mandated masks, he has decided to keep his own mask on out of concern for his and other customers' health and because he has simply gotten used to wearing one. Plus, he said, the masks are helpful when working in front of a hand cobbler machine.
Since the pandemic, business at the shoe repair shop has been down 40%, and Oberhauser is eagerly anticipating new and returning customers emerging out of work-from-home mode and back into the office.
With neighboring companies like Visa Research gradually reopening their offices, Oberhauser hopes to see his store packed with people.
"I want to go home every night and just be like, 'Wow, we were so busy today' and look forward to repeating it the next day," he said.
Selzer likewise relies on people working in downtown Palo Alto companies.
"We're having a tough time because people used to be walking back and forth five days a week from the Caltrain station to work and periodically they'd pop into the store and buy something," he said. "For us, they'd bring their bike on the train, bring it into the shop and have us work on it while they were at work and then pick it up at the end of the day. That's business we've lost."
Salvador Margarito, owner of Mountain View restaurant Doppio Zero, said that while the loss of nearby office employees coming in for lunch has harmed his business, the closing of Castro Street has certainly helped. The added space on the street in front of Doppio Zero can accommodate dozens of people.
Likewise, the closure of University Avenue in Palo Alto to car traffic has aided restaurants but has become a cause for complaint by retailers, who say they've lost foot traffic. Selzer, however, sides with those who want to keep University closed to cars for now.
"I can't say that opening University wouldn't benefit my business, but I know that it would harm the businesses that are needing it right now like the restaurants. They just had a solid year of losing money. I don't care that they get an extra benefit of 25 more tables outside and the 25 inside. That's great! Fill them all," he said.
"Let these guys make some of their money back because they've been hammered this year. I'm all for opening things back up, but that's one thing I think they should leave in place until the end of the year."
Even if June 15 hasn't brought a sudden influx of customers, business operators say it represents a fresh new start.
Sam Valero, a barber at the Menlo Park Barber Shop, said that, considering he had been cutting hair outside his shop in August, the return to normal operations indoors has been a welcome change. Relaxed mask restrictions also means that it's easier for Valero to cleanly cut hair around his client's ears and back of the head.
While Valero is happy to see old customers coming back into his shop after 15 months without a fresh haircut, he also said that there are still a lot of old faces he hasn't seen yet.
"Because of the pandemic, you don't know who your clientele is anymore. You don't know who's coming back," Valero said. "We've also received a lot of new customers who were looking for a new barber. So it's like this huge reshuffling of clientele that's occurred."
David Smith, an employee at the Performance Gaines gym in Palo Alto, echoed a similar sentiment of relief and excitement for the future. Capacity restrictions eased a bit last month, and like many other businesses, the gym is operating with an honor code — unvaccinated people are still expected to wear masks, although there will be no official enforcing of that rule.
"It's going to take some getting used to, but it definitely feels like a weight has been lifted," Smith said. "No pun intended."