Music, chatter and echoes of clanking silverware and plates replaced the usual hum of traffic on University Avenue last weekend.
"It feels like we're in a different place — like I'm on vacation," Solette Westerberg said.
Westerberg, a Sunnyvale resident, enjoyed lunch with her husband and two children at Local Union 271, a farm-to-table restaurant that had close to 40 customers at one time during the lunch hour on Saturday. Everyone was outside seated at physically distanced tables and assisted by masked servers.
As part of the city's Summer Streets program, University Avenue was closed on June 26-28 from Cowper Street to High Street in an effort to support local businesses as Santa Clara County's shelter-at-home order continues. Starting Friday, July 3, at 10 a.m., the city will close the street everyday of the week until Aug. 2.
Turning University Avenue into a bike-and-pedestrian mall follows the closure of California Avenue two weeks ago, which was quickly embraced by business owners, residents and members of City Council. Mayor Adrian Fine has been vocal in council meetings and on Twitter about the pleasures of sitting outside on both avenues without cars. Restaurateurs who have a stake on University agreed.
"This is amazing," said Gary Gill, owner of Curry Pizza House. "This is what we were looking for."
With outdoor dining, Gill said he can have more tables to serve diners than he could when he was limited to the inside of his restaurant, and the ability to operate beyond takeout orders gives him the chance to rehire some of the eight staff members he laid off.
Gill's Curry Pizza House and other eateries, including Local Union 271 and Cafe Venetia, are seeing that foot traffic translate into higher sales.
Data independently collected by Ross Mayfield, co-founder of Frontline Foods' Silicon Valley chapter, showed that the 34 food businesses he surveyed, which include ice cream shops, cafes and restaurants, experienced an average 30.4% increase in revenue when compared to the previous Father's Day weekend (June 19-21) — a period that's already typically good for businesses, he said. (The highest percentage came from a restaurant on the main strip with a 400% increase in revenue, whereas the sharpest decline came from a cafe off University with a 25% decrease.)
"My hope is that this is a success, not just for small businesses that are in dire need, but also for the community," Mayfield said.
The impact on businesses that don't serve food has been less clear.
The diversity of retailers on one street — a mattress shop, a cosmetic store, Mill's Florist and a high-end tobacco shop — was one of the reasons why the city didn't immediately shut down the nearly five-block strip for an entire week.
What could, for example, Hemingway Cigars and Tobacco shop, a high-end cigar store that sits near the end of the road closure by Cowper, gain with the extra outdoor space?
Billy Kader, owner of Hemingway since 2001, said he won't be feeling any of the immediate effects of the Summer Streets program. Instead, something more drastic such as reopening the controversial President Hotel or, more generally, the revival of the travel industry would help his business that serves "upscale" clients with cigars.
Hemingway is also farther from the blocks with Curry Pizza House, Salt & Straw and the Apple Store, which usually tend to draw more foot traffic, according to Kader.
"It's good and bad," he said. "But I'm willing to have this closure just for the sake of restaurants."
Not all retail stores lose, however. Mayfield's straw poll also included 16 retail businesses and those that were on University experienced an average 9.1% increase in revenue. Stores off the main strip saw a 7.7% average increase. It's still unclear whether the numbers can be attributed to the street closure.
"For almost every merchant that I talked to, their foot traffic increased, but that has not translated into a meaningful revenue increase yet," Mayfield said.
At Lululemon Athletica, which sells fitness apparel, store key leader Malia Ahinga was monitoring a line of shoppers to limit the number of people inside. Though the store saw lines before the street closure, Ahinga said she feels the program and the increased foot traffic helps.
But even as business owners are doing their utmost to welcome back customers, local and state health officials continue to warn that increased movement will mean an increase in COVID-19 cases.
On Saturday, most visitors to downtown dutifully wore masks, but as usual, a few stragglers either did not have face coverings or kept it underneath their chin or in their hands.
Then there are diners who have no choice but to take off the mask to eat, as well as the fact that there are currently no measures in place to check whether people aren't mixing between outside households. (The most updated county order allows mixing with one other household, but only for outdoor recreational activities that can cater to 6-feet distancing.)
"This is a probability game," said Jennifer Miller, 56, a Menlo Park resident who was biking through University Avenue. "If you're smart, then we can minimize the risk."
As City Manager Ed Shikada and other city staff members weigh feedback from the community to see whether any adjustments need to be made to the street program, part of the city's calculus will have to strike a balance between guarding public health and boosting the local economy.
Recently, Santa Clara County, along with 18 other counties, have been on the state's hot seat for having reported increased COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. On Wednesday, in the same hour Gov. Gavin Newsom announced an order to close all bars, indoor dining, wineries, theaters, zoos, museums and cardrooms, the county reported 210 new cases — the highest single-day number since the beginning of the pandemic — and two more deaths. (These numbers come as testing expands, but also as restrictions are loosened.)
"The situation is dynamic," Shikada said of the streets program on Tuesday. Currently the city plans to move forward with the street closure's schedule, but Shikada said the city will remain flexible, and the program is subject to any changes, pending feedback, shifts in traffic patterns in the coming months and new county health orders.
"We definitely want to stay aware and in sync with what's happening really at the county level," Shikada said.
Most business owners are eager to jump into the seven-day-a-week closure of University. But Yulia Morsey, co-owner of Morsey's Creamery, which sits just outside the border of the road closure by High Street, may be the one outlier.
"I would just do Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday," Morsey said.
The gelato shop reopened on June 26 for the first time since the county's shelter-in-place order first went into effect in March. The store has been hit hard, Morsey said. On Friday, Morsey's Creamery made around $100.
Its owners have every incentive to keep the shop open everyday, even if Morsey is unsure the store will have the same draw of customers since people are working from home. And though she hopes that the program will uplift her store and the surrounding businesses, Morsey also believes that the city shouldn't rush to allow any semblance of the normal life most people are itching for.
"People are still treating the weekend as a weekend," she said. "I think there has to be a balance. We still have to stay safe."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.