Local Bars, Restaurants Welcome State’s Reopening

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Blue Room bartender Tony Salvi serves two customers after this week’s statewide reopening. Bar owner John Samarjian said he wasn’t worried the bar would close down permanently, though other business owners said they barely made it.

Lorraine Hart ordered a vodka tonic this week and did what would have been unthinkable several months ago: She sat at the bar.

The Glendale resident sipped her drink as Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played on the jukebox. She had been going to the local Blue Room bar for about 30 years, and with capacity limits for bars and restaurants recently lifted, it appeared she would visit the iconic location for years more.

“You can only watch so much TV,” Hart said. “I missed seeing my friends. We’d text each other and call, but it wasn’t the same as coming in and having some drinks.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom lifted most statewide coronavirus-related restrictions on Tuesday, with many counties — including Los Angeles — immediately revising health orders to align with the change. Capacity limits for businesses were lifted and physical distancing requirements ended.

John Samarjian, owner of the Blue Room, said his business has fared fairly well, since his patrons tend to be very loyal and frequented the bar even when it was limited to 25% indoor capacity. He’s also the property owner, a status that has helped him reduce some costs, and the bar includes an often busy outdoor patio.

“I’m literally playing it day by day, and then it’ll be week by week,” Samarjian said. “It’s still kind of like a big unknown, but I feel very confident — I feel confident that the old Blue Room will bounce right back.”

Other owners came closer to losing their businesses. Tony Charmello had to max out three credit cards, lay off employees and watch as bills stacked up. But on Tuesday, he made it to the finish line: The Snug, a local Irish pub, fully reopened.

Not all businesses did. Charmello said he has a few friends who had to shut down their bars permanently. He himself didn’t think the Snug would make it to June 15.

Charmello estimates that it’ll take about six months for business to return to normal levels. But he admitted that if another wave of COVID-19 cases forces his pub to close again, he probably won’t reopen.

“I’m just praying we don’t have another shutdown, because if we have a second shutdown, I think a lot of people will be down,” he said.

Photo by Christian Leonard / Burbank Leader
Ron Jefferies, longtime patron of the Blue Room, visited the bar again this week, after statewide coronavirus-related rules on capacity limits, physical distancing and face coverings were lifted.

Burbank saw an average of less than one new coronavirus case a day this week, and as of Friday there hadn’t been a new death reported since May 26. The Los Angeles County public health department reported less than 10 deaths a day due to COVID-19 this week.

Those low numbers encourage Walker Roach, co-owner of the Burbank Bar, who acknowledged that everyone had to sacrifice in order for pandemic conditions to improve to this point. And because his restaurant has weathered the storm of the past 15 months, he believes it could adapt again if another wave of restrictions arrives.

“I think we’re coming out of this on the right side of things,” Roach said.

BACK TO WORK?

One difficulty some local business owners continue to face is finding enough staff members willing to work for them — a challenge even large corporations have reported. 

Without enough workers, according to Gayane Movsesyan, owner of Tonir Cafe, her business still primarily relies on to-go orders, though business is beginning to pick up. Without her family members helping out and loans coming to make ends meet, she doesn’t think the restaurant would have survived.

“I hope we can all get back to work and get back to the way things were,” Movsesyan said.

A lack of available child care, large unemployment insurance payments and a persistent fear of a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans have been cited as potential factors behind companies’ struggles to find enough employees, according to Axios.

Charmello believes there’s another: the fear that a surge in COVID-19 cases will prompt layoffs again. When he spoke with the Leader last year after bars were ordered to close again, he couldn’t afford to keep his employees on the payroll. Now, he’s struggling to get workers hired.

“It’s in the back of everyone’s mind: ‘What if? … I don’t want to get in that line again,’” he said. “I don’t blame them.”

STATE REVISES FACE COVERING RULES

In another major change to state coronavirus policy on Tuesday, people no longer have to wear face coverings when outdoors, and those who have been fully vaccinated can remove masks when indoors.

There are a few caveats, however. Though fully vaccinated people are no longer required to wear a face covering in most public settings, everyone must wear a mask in public transit environments, such as buses, subway stations, airports and airplanes; indoor schools from grades K-12; child-care and other youth settings including camps; health-care settings, including long-term care facilities; shelters; and correctional and detention centers.

People who are not vaccinated, including children ages 2-12, are required to wear a mask in indoor public settings such as stores, restaurants, movie theaters and family entertainment centers. Unvaccinated people must also wear a mask when attending a large outdoor event.

On Thursday, Cal/OSHA’s Standards Board voted to also allow vaccinated employees to go unmasked while at the workplace, a change Newsom implemented immediately via an executive order.

The update came amid intense criticism of an earlier decision by the board that would have only allowed vaccinated workers to be without a face covering if everyone in the room was vaccinated.

“I think there was a sense from the business community that the [previous] rules … were a little bit arbitrary and illogical, and we felt it could create a confrontational atmosphere in the workplace,” said Paul Herman, the Burbank Chamber of Commerce’s public affairs chair.

If the standards board’s initial ruling had gone into effect, Herman explained, even one unvaccinated worker’s presence in the room would have forced every other employee there to remain masked.

Businesses are allowed to verify the vaccination status of their patrons or require all guests to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status, but none of the owners who spoke with the Leader said they were interested in those options.

“You’re not your brother’s keeper in this instance,” Blue Room owner Samarjian said, adding that he and his employees are all vaccinated. “When it comes to everyone else, it’s their life — and their risk.”

— Zane Hill contributed to this report