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COVID Reopening: Bay Area Cities, Businesses, Residents Imagine Life After June 15

PALO ALTO (KPIX) - With about a week to go before the state's grand reopening, residents and businesses across the Bay Area were envisioning life after June 15.

In the South Bay, cities were revisiting their street closure programs that expanded outdoor dining options for struggling restaurants.

The city of Palo Alto is contemplating reopening University Avenue on July 6, and California Avenue on September 7.

Mountain View is considering reopening the 400 block of Castro Street, but keeping the 100 to 300 block closed until December 31, said Lenka Wright, Chief Communications Officer. The city council will consider the proposal at its June 22 meeting.

According to staff reports, businesses owners on the 400 block wanted that section open, and reopening that block would improve fire department access to the area.

There is "lots of interest" within the city of San Jose to maintain its outdoor dining program until December 31, said Elisabeth Handler at the Office of Economic Development.

However, San Jose is awaiting clearer guidance from Santa Clara County and the State of California, regarding the June 15 reopening. About 60 businesses have applied for permits to operate outdoors under the city's Al Fresco Initiative.

As for Palo Alto, the push to reopen University Avenue earlier is being applauded by retail shops.

"The traffic that we have now is casual traffic. Bikers, skateboarders, dog walkers. It's kind of like a fairground atmosphere. We want more shoppers," said Gwen Gasque, owner of Letter Perfect stationary store, which has been in business for four decades.

Gasque said the city should consider a part-time closure, perhaps from Friday night to Sunday night, to take advantage of peak restaurant hours. Gasque said the street closure and lack of parking in front of the store has driven customers elsewhere.

"If I wasn't a business owner, I would love it. Owning a business means with the high rents that we pay, we need a different type of shopper," said Gasque.

Philip Woo at Taste Chinese Restaurant favors a reopening of University Avenue, which would free up parking in front for food delivery workers.

"For the delivery driver, it's more convenient for them," said Woo.

Last month, Charlie Weidanz, Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce CEO, addressed the councilmembers, urging them to consider the impact on all businesses.

"We all agree that Uplift Local Streets Program currently in place has been successful in creating a safe environment that encourages many to visit and eat outdoors in a safe environment. However, while the closure supports the restaurants, it does not necessarily support the success of all businesses on University Avenue, and the side streets where retailers rely on drive-by shoppers to visit their stores," said Weidanz.

Judy Vasa, owner of Siam Royal Thai restaurant, said outdoor dining helped to dramatically boost their business. In the early days of the pandemic, sales dropped to 25 percent of normal. After Palo Alto shut down University Avenue, revenue improved to 50 percent of normal. Today, Vasa said they are back to 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels.

Vasa would like to see the University Avenue reopening pushed back to the end of September, in order to take advantage of summer weather but she acknowledges that neighboring retail business owners are struggling.

"I know, I understand them. It's tough. I know it's hard for the city," said Vasa.

For a lot of people in the East Bay, the general feeling about the reopening is 'freedom.'

"Freedom from the mask,' said one Livermore business owner.

'Freedom' is how a mother and daughter sales team Sherri Swanson and Emily Pope view June 15. They want to have a party that day.

"We are just counting the days," said Swanson.

Pope and Swanson own Main Street Designs in Livermore and like many, it's been a challenging time as small business owners.

"Last year this time we were closed so I'm just happy to be here," said Swanson.

"I am most excited to see our customers faces … their whole face," said Emily Pope.

As the state prepares to get back to normal, capacity and distancing restrictions will be lifted for most businesses and activities. Large scale indoor events will have vaccination or negative test requirements for attendees through at least October.

Last year the annual Alameda County Fair was cancelled and the fairgrounds became a central hub for COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. It, too, has its sights now set on June 15 and beyond with summer horseracing and a fall fair with the theme 'Come Together.'

"It's a real big deal for us to come together with our fall fair we are excited to bring people together," said Tiffany Cadrette with the Alameda County Fairgrounds Marketing.

Another pair of friends started a cross-country road trip at the tail-end of the pandemic.

"I travel the world and to just be home for 15 months and not be able to see people and see how beautiful country it was kind of depressing," said Vasti Amar.

Janine Hernandez who is traveling with Amar added, "We are just so excited to socialize with people. They have June 15 highlighted on the road trip calendar."

"June 15! We did it in California!" exclaimed the traveling duo.

Kiet Do and Juliette Goodrich contributed to this report.

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