Los Angeles County business owners excited to welcome back customers as restrictions ease

(CNN) — George Metsos had to furlough 30 of 37 of his employees due to the pandemic.

Like many businesses, Metsos’ restaurant, Patys — which is located in the Toluca Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles — took a hit when indoor operations were forced to close.

But on Monday, for the first time in months, he was able to welcome all of his employees back — along with a slew of customers — for indoor dining, as LA County eased some of its restrictions.

“It’s really a strange feeling for us because we haven’t had anyone in the building since Thanksgiving,” Metsos told CNN. “We’ve been waiting for this day to reopen for the longest time … Personally, I haven’t been able to sleep the last two nights thinking about today because I’m so happy for my staff.”

Restaurants, which up until now only offered take-out and/or outdoor dining, reopened indoors with up to 25% capacity. Museums, zoos and aquariums were also permitted to reopen with up to 25% maximum capacity. Gyms, fitness centers, yoga studios and dance studios were also able to reopen indoors with up to 10% maximum occupancy.

All reopenings do require wearing masks and social distancing still, according to the Los Angeles Department of Public Health (LADPH).

The easing of restrictions comes as Covid-19 cases have been declining in the county, which currently has about 1.2 million reported cases and more 22,000 deaths, according to the LADPH website.

As of Wednesday, the county has administered 2.7 million Covid-19 vaccines and more than 899,000 second doses.

LADPH announced Friday was the first time hospitalizations had dropped under 1,000 since November, allowing the county to move from the purple tier, the most restrictive in the state’s coronavirus reporting system, to the red tier where businesses can slightly reopen.

Many business owners say they are ready to welcome people back

Many business owners, including Metsos, welcomed the news, as it signaled a move toward normalcy.

“I think it’s about time,” Jerry Housey, owner of Strong House Fitness in LA, told CNN. “Our gym workers should have been classified as essential workers because the gym is an outlet for people’s physical and mental health.”

Housey said he reopened his gym on Monday after struggling to pay the gym’s rent for months.

He said he and his team “had to hustle” to provide virtual training. “But people are tired,” he said. “They want to get out of their homes and back into gym facilities now.”

“A lot of people have reached out to me extremely excited to get back in the gym,” he added. “And I’m so proud and happy to be able to offer our services to more people.”

Christy Vega, owner of Casa Vega in Sherman Oaks, said the restaurant is prepared for more customers.

“In addition to our two parking lots full of outdoor dining, our indoor dining tables today will be 8 feet apart and I installed two HEPA filters on all our air conditioning and ventilation units,” she told CNN. “We have all the doors open and we can only allow 20 people in my restaurant, but we’re so excited.”

For Vega, the pandemic has been challenging both personally and professionally — she lost her father to Covid two months ago, and also had to furlough 90% of the restaurant’s employees, twice.

“Moving into the red tier makes me so hopeful that things are starting to return back to normal,” she said. “I’m really grateful that the numbers have gone down and we’re in a much safer environment.”

Others are not as eager to reopen their doors just yet

Others remain more cautiously optimistic about reopening their doors.

Caroline Styne, the co-founder of Lucques Group, which owns four Southern California restaurants, said she and her employees are excited, but the new changes are “frightening.”

“It’s frightening just because we’ve all been in this hunkered-down and sheltered mode for a while and positive change is foreign to us right now,” she said, adding that all of her employees are vaccinated.

Kevin Montgomery, owner of Red Diamond Yoga, which has various locations in Los Angeles, said he is not in a hurry to reopen his businesses at just 10% capacity.

“It’ll make me so much more excited to reopen indoors when we’re out of the 10% capacity limit,” he said, noting that a limited reopening “doesn’t really make sense” for his yoga studios.

“I have a room that will hold about 17 people with the instructor fully distanced — 10% of that is two people. So, we lose money every class. That’s why we’re not in a hurry to open indoors today.”

He said many people “prefer outdoor classes” amid the pandemic.

“Normally we run 70 classes per studio per week,” he said. “Across two locations, we can only run about 40 outdoors per week. No matter how you slice it, it’s just been devastating though.”

Still, he’s optimistic.

“My hope is that the county keeps coming down on the numbers and more people get vaccines so the customers will come back. It doesn’t make sense to open with all kinds of restrictions and nobody comes.”

Business operating with optimism and caution

While reopening is exciting, some still said they anticipate more challenges ahead due to the pandemic.

David Schenk, owner Lift Society in Studio City, said he and his staff are excited to reopen — but know it’ll take some time to adjust to new regulations.

“We’ll have a couple hundred clients but everyone is going to be on a different page,” he told CNN. “This will be tough to navigate because some people are scared to death to come back, and others are depressed and have gained 30 pounds and are ready to do something about it right now. It’s a huge wide spectrum of people and our job is to make sure everyone feels comfortable.”

Metsos, of Patys, said the biggest challenge he foresees is “going to be with the public.”

“If we’re at 25% capacity, you’re going to have to wait and some people don’t like that,” he said. “We already had a couple this morning ask us ‘two more wouldn’t hurt right?’ So, that’s what I envision could be a problem.”

Meanwhile, LA health officials continue to urge people to be cautious.

“As we begin to see some hard-earned reopenings, we must remain as vigilant as ever,” said LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis. “Continued decline in cases are by no means a guarantee. And if we’re not careful, we could easily fall back into the purple tier or worse — experience another resurgence.”

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