The streets of Turlock were a bit busier on Thursday as retailers and restaurants welcomed customers inside of their stores for the first time in two months.
Since shelter-in-place orders meant to curb the spread of COVID-19 were implemented throughout California in mid-March, eateries were previously confined to offering only takeout or delivery while retail stores did their best to provide curbside pickup options.
After approval from the state on Wednesday, however, Stanislaus County has now entered the second phase of Stage 2 to re-open the economy, meaning restaurants can now offer dine-in options and shoppers can browse the aisles inside of stores as long as all public health modifications and requirements are met.
Though there is now a long list of social distancing and sanitization guidelines that restaurants must meet, El Jardin manager Adalberto Patino said he’s glad to be serving tables again — this time, legally. The restaurant opened its patio for outdoor dining last weekend prior to the state’s approval, serving customers on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. There was plenty of support, Patino said, however when El Jardin was informed they were in violation of the state health orders the restaurant returned to takeout service only.
The dine-in service had only been shut down one day when Patino got word that Stanislaus County would be entering the second half of Stage 2. They began serving customers on their outdoor patio again on Thursday, cutting their occupancy in half, spacing tables apart and ensuring that all staff wear masks and socially distance themselves from each other and customers, among other requirements.
“It’s like a restart...It’s a big change we have to make, but we’re willing to go through it to be the safest we can be,” Patino said.
El Jardin was able to fill enough takeout orders during the shelter-in-place orders to break even over the last two months, he added, but had to lay off about half of the restaurant's staff. Slowly but surely the workers will return, but in the meantime Patino is thankful for the patience of the community.
“Because we can’t seat as many people and have less staff, people have been waiting 40 minutes to an hour to be seated...the customers don’t mind at all,” Patino said. “They say they’ve had to wait two months, so they don’t mind waiting an hour.”
El Jardin has plenty of patio space for diners, but is also considering applying for an outdoor business permit with the City to allow for more tables and chairs in their back parking lot and adjoining property. The application process went live on the City’s website Wednesday afternoon, City Manager Toby Wells said, though no businesses have applied yet.
“We are very excited to finally be in Stage 2B and have our retail and restaurants allowed to reopen,” Wells said. “It is our hope that this outdoor operations use permit will be a benefit to assist businesses have more space to comply with the state guidance and return to profitability as quickly as possible.”
Other smaller restaurants that don’t have the luxury of an outdoor dining space are considering the permit as well, like Angelini’s Italian Restaurant. Despite dine-in receiving the go-ahead, owner Ed Loetz said the restaurant is determining the best course of action before reopening, rearranging and removing tables in the space to allow for social distancing and considering the pros and cons of adding outdoor seating.
He isn’t sure if he’ll apply to utilize the parking lot in front of his business, he said, citing potential liabilities and the fast-approaching summer heat.
“We’ve been waiting since day one to open back up, but I thought it'd be a little bit longer. It’s a relief for a lot of the other businesses out there who maybe don’t have that steady customer base or couldn’t do curbside or takeout...I’m happy for people who have relief finally,” Loetz said. “We want to be compliant and once we’re ready to do that we’ll be open. Probably within the next day or two.”
Angelini’s has fared better than expected through the quarantine, Loetz added, with sales dropping by about 25 percent. He credited the restaurant’s steady takeout routine that was already in place prior to the pandemic; about 20 percent of Angelini’s regular orders were takeout even before it was required.
“We’re so grateful to the community because they’ve been very supportive during all of this. I like this model — we’re working less hours and there are less expenses, so it’s actually been good financially,” Loetz said.
Despite some of Loetz’s perceived positives that came with providing curbside pickup only, he’s looking forward to opening the restaurant back up to customers again.
“We’ve missed our customers and the interactions. Right now, all we do is man the phone and that gets boring. You sit there and sit still just to answer phone calls, emails and texts. Versus one-on-one? That's tough. It’s different,” he said.
Missing out on half of the restaurant’s seating and the addition of extra labor to keep up with health requirements are “unknowns,” Loetz added, and the ramifications of these measures on the restaurant remain to be seen.
“I’m not sure how it’s going to workout yet,” he said. “We’re excited, but it’s going to be tough.”
As Angelini’s prepares to welcome customers back and El Jardin jumps into the new era of serving, other restaurants around town have kept diners up-to-date through their social media pages. Memo’s Cocina and Tequila Bar is serving customers, as are Loza Wine and Crepes, Black Bear Diner, Main Street Footers and others both downtown and throughout Turlock.
Retail stores must limit their capacity under the state health guidelines, and upon opening on Thursday Envy Fine Clothing in Turlock is only allowing 10 people into the store at a time. Store manager Emma Cunningham said the shop saw plenty of new customers on the first day who were happy something was open.
“Everyone is really glad we’re open, even though we were doing curbside pickup,” Cunningham said. “A lot of people were still buying clothes even though they couldn’t try things on because they wanted to support us.”
Customers don’t mind the new safety measures, she added — they’re just happy to be shopping again. The employees are glad to see them, too.
“When customers can actually come in the store, you definitely build a one-on-one relationship with them,” Cunningham said. “Then they get to see all of the things we actually have to offer.”
The rest of Main Street was full of activity once again on Thursday, much to Farm House co-owner Candace Gonsalves’ surprise. After the home decor and gift shop’s staff spent the entire shelter-in-place period fulfilling as many curbside pickup and delivery orders as they could, Gonsalves planned on giving everyone a well-deserved break as shoppers could now frequent other stores.
When she arrived at the store on Thursday morning, however, Gonsalves was met by shoppers hoping to enter the store for the first time in eight weeks. Although the shop had been operating as more of a “warehouse” during the quarantine, Gonsalves decided to let the store’s supporters partake in some retail therapy and will get the store ready for its re-opening over the next few days.
“We’re going to be closed over the holiday weekend and just take some time to deep clean, revamp and come out for a grand re-opening. We’re starting off fresh and we’re really excited about that,” Gonalves said. “The community supported us through this entire thing. We were overwhelmed...it’s just a humbling experience to know that our community will step up and support us through anything. It’s really amazing.”