Mild mid-winter weather and an end to shelter-in-place lockdown could mean an uptick in activity in the public sphere of Santa Cruz County, where Friday’s scenes showed many wanting to get out for some fresh air.
These days, we live in a world where restaurateurs are forced to make decisions on the basis of bed occupancy at intensive care units. A year ago, that kind of bizarre linkage would have made sense to no one.
But 11 months deep into a global pandemic, most have become accustomed to the rules of COVID-19.
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This weekend, for instance, marks yet another phase of the long journey back to normal. With a stay-at-home order newly lifted, a forecast for sunny weather, and Super Bowl Sunday looming, many businesses in Santa Cruz County can expect an uptick in business, as locals look to shake off a bit of mid-winter doldrums.
At the same time, new daily cases of COVID-19 are still averaging more than 130,000 nationally, the county is still stuck in the state-designated “purple tier” — the most restrictive level — and vaccine rollout has not been without significant bumps and bruises.
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Still, there is anticipation that in the neglected public sphere, locals will be out and about.
“I definitely get the sense that people are anxious to get out and stretch their legs and be away from home for a bit,” said Zachary Davis, the CEO of The Glass Jar, which owns and operates the Penny Ice Creamery, the Picnic Basket, and Snap Taco in Santa Cruz.
Of course, Davis’s Penny Ice Creamery has extra incentive to be stoked about a mild, pre-Valentine’s weekend. Penny and other ice cream shops will get the weekend off to a promising start Saturday morning with Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day — an actual national observation, created more than 50 years ago, in fact right around the same time as the first Super Bowl.
“It’s just a coincidence that this year it will happen on a lovely day,” said Davis, who adds that Penny will open at 9 a.m. Saturday.
At the Picnic Basket, on Beach Street, diners can enjoy the day at the café’s outdoor tables during daylight hours, as it — and every other restaurant in the county — adapts to ever-changing rules and protocols.
“Personally, I think I’m achieving some kind of Zen about all this,” Davis laughed. “Right now, we just want to be a good partner in keeping everybody safe. I’m hopeful we’ve seen the worst of it, and we’ll all be moving in the right direction.”
“We are excited to be open again,” said Amelia Espinoza, the manager and co-owner of the Watsonville landmark Cilantro’s. Since reopening for dinner on Jan. 29, Espinoza and her staff at Cilantro’s have had to put to use skills borne of the pandemic, keeping themselves and their customers safe, and comfortable. “It’s been tough staying on top of the heaters and the propane.”
At Ella’s at the Watsonville Airport, owner and namesake Ella King said she was optimistic that the spring and summer will mean better times for her business. “We’re weathering the storm,” she said. “People are excited to be by the airport, sitting next to the tarmac and watch the planes land and take off.”
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On the Westside of Santa Cruz, distiller Sean Venus of Venus Spirits opened his kitchen last summer in the teeth of the pandemic.
“We’ve yet to execute our original business model,” said Venus, the day after his first “reopening night” at the Venus restaurant. This weekend, the restaurant has expanded its hours from noon to 6 p.m. to take advantage of more daylight hours.
There is counter service only, with picnic-style food most conducive to eating outside. That original business model, to mix sharable entrees and small plates to go with Venus’s signature cocktails, will have to wait a bit longer.
“Problem solving, I enjoy that,” said Venus. “But to continually have to change things, when you can’t see what’s next, that’s hard. We weren’t expecting to see ICU capacity drop and to go back to purple until the end of February. So we had to kind of scramble to get things ready in the last couple of weeks.”