When the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread in March 2020, Palo Alto swiftly shut down most City Hall offices, suspended recreational programs and closed down libraries and community centers to comply with the new and urgent health restrictions.
But while most of these limits are set to expire on June 15, residents should not expect an immediate return to normal. If the city's shutdown felt dramatic and, in many ways, traumatic, its reopening will be more like a slow bloom.
Palo Alto's emergence from the emergency is expected to unfold gradually and incrementally, city staff say, with some suspended services returning almost immediately and others remaining in limbo for months.
For users of the city's recreation programs, for instance, normalcy is already creeping in. Recreation classes at the Children's Theatre and camps at Foothills Park are now up and running after the pandemic-induced break and signups are in full swing, according to city staff.
Open space preserves, where trails were limited to one-way foot traffic during the pandemic, have recently reverted to two-way mode. The city's golf course, Baylands Golf Links, is also back in business, and its café is offering both outdoor and indoor dining, according to City Manager Ed Shikada.
Mitchell Park, Rinconada and Children's libraries are now welcoming the public to come inside, and library computers, which were taken out of commission during the pandemic, are now back in use. The Palo Alto Art Center is also open, albeit with reduced staffing, shorter operating hours and 25% visitor capacity.
The Magical Bridge playground at Mitchell Park, which was under capacity limits before the city entered the "yellow tier" under the state's Blueprint for a Safer Economy, no longer has these restrictions. And with limits easing, the popular playground is now looking ahead to a summer concert series, with musical acts booked for every Friday evening between July 16 and Sept. 3.
And while the Chili Cook-off, a longtime Fourth of July fixture in Palo Alto, will not be taking place this year, the city is planning a musical event in the park on that day, Shikada said. In lieu of hot chili, visitors can expect the Radio City All Stars band, food trucks and a play area for children, according to a staff update on the city's economic recovery.
Other city operations will retain their restrictions at least until the end of July.
City Hall won't be open for regular business for some time yet, even though some services can be provided through appointments. The city's community centers — Lucie Stern Community Center and Cubberley Community Center — won't be open for general use until early August, Shikada said in an email.
Other reopening plans remain in flux. Shikada noted that staff is still trying to react to the recent back-and-forth decisions by Cal/OSHA about workplace regulations.
"Specifically, the requirements based (on) vaccination status have a big impact on our general workforce plans," Shikada said in an email. "That said, the community can continue to expect continued availability of services online and by phone as well as increased availability by appointment for services like building permits."
In some cases, the new normal may look starkly different from the old. On June 22, the City Council will have a key decision to make, when it considers Shikada's plan for reopening University and California avenues to cars on July 7 and Sept. 6, respectively, or whether to extend the city's experiment with dining promenades in the two commercial districts.
The issue has polarized the business community, with many restaurants welcoming the new street scene and the recent influx of outdoor diners and some retailers arguing that the closures have hurt their business and urging the city to reopen the streets to cars. Visitors, meanwhile, overwhelmingly support the new streetscape, with more than 95% of the respondents saying in city surveys that they would like to see the streets remain closed to cars.
A new report from Shikada notes that "many residents, in current and previous communications, expressed enjoying the openness of the streets, freedom from worrying about vehicles, and enjoying the pleasant weather and atmosphere." At the same time, the report states, continuing the street closures "helps some businesses possibly at the expense of other businesses."
"Continuing the program may encourage continued outdoor dining and boost overall visits to these streets," the report states. "If, however, these visits do not translate into retail sales, retailers will continue to be challenged to recover."
In another baby step toward normalcy, the council will consider on June 22 whether to rescind the local "state of emergency," which has been in effect since the onset of the pandemic and which gives the city manager special powers to circumvent normal regulations when purchasing equipment or making decisions relating to health and safety. Even if the local state of emergency is rescinded, Shikada would retain his emergency powers under California's state of emergency, which Gov. Gavin Newsom had indicated will remain in place even after June 15.
Shikada wrote in the report that staff does not foresee a need for this authority to manage the current state of the pandemic.
In addition to laying out plans for near-term recovery, council members and staff are also looking further ahead into the post-pandemic future. On June 1, the council directed staff to hire an economic consultant who would help the city develop a new economic strategy, one that considers among other things the increasing trend toward telecommuting. Charlie Weidanz, CEO of the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce, told the council during the discussion that the city should consider the implications of a "hybrid economy."
"We may not see the 85,000-plus workers that come in," Weidanz said. "How do retail, hospitality, restaurants and hotels succeed with a possible reduced daytime population?"
Mayor Tom DuBois said at the June 1 meeting that by developing a new economic strategy, the council is trying to be "nimble enough to adapt if there's really a long-term change from COVID that requires a different mix of businesses, both in raising revenue and providing services to residents."
Three of his council colleagues — Vice Mayor Pat Burt, Lydia Kou and Greer Stone — recommended that the city go even further and hire an economic development manager, a position that City Hall has lacked since 2016. Kou said she doesn't want to "leave it to chance and to market forces to dictate what we're going to do here" but rather supports being more proactive in encouraging the uses that the council would like to see. Stone agreed.
"I really think the shift we're going to see in these market forces and our local economy is so unprecedented that it really does require a level of expertise that I don't think we have internally," Stone said.