For weeks since COVID-19 vaccines became more accessible and health restrictions decreased, businesses have been experiencing a healthy influx of customers — in numbers they haven't seen since the pandemic began.
"We already bounced back three months ago," said Nina Nguyen, owner of Palo Alto Fit, a fitness studio on Portage Avenue that specializes in personal training.
So when Tuesday comes — California's "reopening" date that will allow fully vaccinated persons to take off their masks in most settings and for indoor places to lift all capacity restrictions — businesses won't suddenly return to a prepandemic "normal."
Instead, June 15 will set off small but significant shifts for customers, most of whom will no longer have to wear masks, and businesses, which can get closer to serving a true full house of patrons.
Having capacity limits at 100% won't be a major turning point for Palo Alto Fit, which has suffered from but ultimately weathered the pandemic because its business model focuses on appointment-based, one-to-one personal training sessions. But the update does give back clients the comfort of exercising without a sweaty mask on.
"We're very excited," Nguyen said. "We have a little more freedom now especially if everyone is vaccinated."
Nguyen, who opened the studio in 2015, said her gym will verify every clients' vaccination status and have them sign a liability waiver if they want to train without a mask on. For the unvaccinated, clients will have to keep their mask on or exercise outside, she said. All clients, however, will still have the option to do virtual training sessions.
In many ways, the studio reflects how most businesses will approach the June 15 update — particularly in how they'll determine who is vaccinated and who is not, since businesses aren't legally required to check vaccination statuses.
In a press conference on June 9, state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly said that, beyond posting signage that notifies how unvaccinated people must wear masks, businesses can rely on the honor system.
"If somebody comes into their business or their operation without a mask, it should be considered a self-attestation for someone being vaccinated," Ghaly said. "We are not requiring businesses to, for example, have somebody at the door checking vaccine status as a way to comply with this.”
But some businesses are opting to check their customers' vaccination status anyway.
At La Migliore Salon in Menlo Park, owner Showa Sahle said she likes to pay meticulous attention to the details of her clients' hair salon experience, providing them small amenities like coffee and making sure they're comfortable as they get their hair done.
When Tuesday arrives, vaccination statuses will be a major determiner for how Sahle and her hair stylists interact with their patrons.
"It's not like we're going to refuse a client," Sahle said. "But we're going to know how to handle them."
Vaccination statuses, for example, will help Sahle know if customers can get their hair done without a mask on and if other hair stylists need to maintain a 6-feet distance from the person. Vaccinated people will also be able to wait inside the salon for their appointment, whereas unvaccinated customers will have to wait outside.
"Not to be mean," she said. "But just to be cautious. Protect them and protect ourselves."
Sahle said on Thursday that she would be sending emails to all her clients about how things will shift once June 15 arrives.
Business operators seemed to welcome the small changes that June 15 will bring, but Paul Brannon, who oversees operations at MP Mongolian BBQ in Menlo Park, said the reopening date won't be a "light switch" for businesses. Instead, the date will be another social signal for the more trepid that things are getting safer and it may be OK to sit down inside an establishment.
"I think people will use it as a guide and say, 'OK, now we can start getting ready to go back to normal,'" said Brannon, who has worked at the restaurant for eight years.
That signal could especially be a boon for self-serve style restaurants like MP Mongolian where customers often have to wait in a line in close proximity and share tongs and serving spoons with each other. According to Brannon, it was only about a month ago when the restaurant once again allowed customers to serve themselves the raw ingredients they want in their dish — typical for Mongolian BBQ where the food still has to be stir-fried afterwards — as opposed to having the staff fill it up for them.
MP Mongolian has also seen an uptick in customers since April when indoor dining was allowed by San Mateo County. For most of the pandemic, the restaurant has depended on takeout, since the location and the format of the business isn't conducive to outdoor dining. But Brannon believes that his restaurant has fared better than other self-serve style restaurants such as buffets, since the food isn't cooked until the customers choose the ingredients they want and a chef cooks them at very high temperatures on a large iron griddle.
"I think people felt more safe with that," Brannon said.
The small buffet portion of MP Mongolian, which Brannon called a "hot table" where diners can serve themselves fried egg rolls, fried rice and sweet and sour pork, remains closed. Customers can still place an order of eggrolls, for example, but until more clear guidance is given from the state or county on buffets, that part of the restaurant will stay closed.
"I don't even know if there is a restriction," he said.
As the state removes restrictions, store operators are eager to move away from the constant state of uncertainty and flexibility they've had to adopt during the pandemic, which at one point forced businesses to close indoor operations within weeks of reopening.
One challenge that lies ahead as customers come back? Finding more employees.
Sahle at La Migliore said having an extra stylist now would be helpful as walk-in customers become more frequent. At MP Mongolian BBQ, two employees maintain a restaurant that used to be staffed with six to eight workers. The work is becoming physically demanding, Brannon said, but he was grateful at least to see customers return.
"It'll still be a slow, uphill slog, but just the fact that enough people are coming in for us to keep the doors open is a relief," he said. "Now it's hard to find employees."