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Friday, Jul 1, 2022

Deadline: June 15

 Businesses have been preparing more than a year for this moment – a potential ending of state-imposed pandemic tiers on June 15.

The question is whether companies – particularly public-facing ones such as restaurants – will be ready by the deadline. Challenges include employment issues, physical lay-out of the establishment and improved ventilation and sanitation post-COVID.Madelyn Alfano, owner of Maria’s Italian Kitchen in Van Nuys, said about 60 to 70 percent of staff at Maria’s are vaccinated. Her employment lawyer, Anthony Zaller, said she can make vaccination a term of employment per federal guidelines, but she won’t require that of her staff.“I wouldn’t tell a longtime employee that they couldn’t work if they weren’t vaccinated because they’re afraid of it. I would just let them know that they’re safer for getting it,” said Alfano. One employee of Maria’s, a former nurse, has helped employees sign up for the vaccine, she added.Another challenge specific to reopening involves getting staff back, mostly because they choose not to come back, Alfano said. Some continue to collect unemployment benefits, while others have switched industries, or states, for more opportunities.

“The construction industry is booming during COVID. They can make a lot more money in construction, so we lost a lot more people to construction. Even the warehouse business, like Amazon.com Inc., they’re taking on a huge amount of employees to work in the warehouses,” explained Alfano.The California Restaurant Association’s Sharokina Shams echoed that sentiment, adding that the public may see restaurants continue to adjust their hours or modify operations while they work to rebuild staff count. Shams serves as vice president of public affairs for the organization.Partitions and ventilationAlfano said the shifts in seating capacity percentage during the pandemic, such as dropping two state-imposed tiers in March, didn’t really help her expand business capabilities due to size constraints.Her restaurants offer intimate dining experiences, with small indoor dining and modest patios.

“Even moving from red to orange, when it went to 25 percent indoor dining, our restaurants are so small that with the now 8 feet of separation … we haven’t changed our capacity,” explained Alfano. “And then when we switched to 50 percent capacity with the 8-foot separation, we still haven’t changed our capacity because we’re a small restaurant.”“There’s this high variability of what businesses can do, but the costs have been considerable. They make the investment in complying with a certain set of protocols, but does that help them actually increase their capacity?” asked Holly Schroeder, chief executive of the Santa Clarita Valley Economic Development Corp.

“Depending on the configuration of your restaurant or your gym, the equipment you have, you may or may not be able to accomplish that.”Alfano estimates 5 to 6 percent of her overall cost for the past year went toward COVID preparations. As one example, the chain spent roughly $35,000 on air conditioning upgrades, including ionization scrubbers and high wave technology to improve ventilation.“The air goes into the vents, then it goes through ionization, and then through a HIPAA filter,” said Alfano. Ionization emits ions, or charged particles, that help purify the air by trapping contaminants that are too small to filter out, including COVID-19 aerosols.Of course, Maria’s staff have the proper personal protective equipment too, along with temperature check implementation and barriers to separate parties.

Added Alfano: “I installed, in all of my restaurants between the booths, really nice physical barriers. There are nice framed glass barriers, partitions, that went up 72 inches from the ground, because that was also a requirement, that if you, based on if you’re sitting down, you want 38 inches above your head to be protected. I had all of my restaurants completely sanitized, I had those electrostatic sprayers, with sanitizers.”Takeout chargebacksOne moneymaker for the restaurant chain during the pandemic was Maria’s take-out/delivery service. It accounted for 30 to 40 percent of its pre-pandemic business, and currently the company sees take-out and delivery sitting at 80 percent.

“I think eventually maybe we’ll go to 50-50,” Alfano said, of dine-in versus delivery.

Maria’s has overhauled its technology offerings to boost sales too. Customers have a “text to pay” option, and its online ordering platform has been updated to lure customers away from third-party vendors like Doordash and Postmates.“I’d rather give my customers a 15 percent discount to order online, than pay Doordash and get your money 10 days later,” said Alfano.One of the restaurant industry’s biggest challenges exacerbated by the pandemic was actually due to these third-party vendors, Alfano said, adding that her business has incurred thousands of dollars in chargeback losses.“They (customers) order food, and then they deny the charge. They’ll say ‘Oh, the food was bad,’ or ‘I didn’t get it.’ They paid with their credit card, we delivered them their food, they never complained to us, and now (the credit card companies are) taking the money out of our account because they charged back,” explained Alfano. “There were several restaurants that went out of business because they couldn’t sustain the chargebacks.”Preparing for everythingAnother hurdle, besides capacity concerns, involve time to conform to government guidelines, Schroeder said.“Sometimes the announcements come and the guidance isn’t out, or the guidance comes out hours before the announcement, or simultaneously. When restaurants were able to open up again after getting shut down for outdoor, and then again when they were allowed to open for indoor (dining), the announcement came out, but the guidance wasn’t out, protocols weren’t out,” she said.Businesses need to understand the state rules, and then figure out if there are additional regulations for their respective counties, leaving many feeling uneasy about June 15.“The past year hangs like a shadow over what feels like positive news, in terms of the trends and the announcement about reopening in June,” added Schroeder. “We still don’t have, in all categories of businesses, we still don’t have the guidance we need to fully prepare for this.”Then there’s lead time. It takes at least several days to make sure a business is properly staffed and protocols are met, Schroeder said.

“What we’ve learned during this pandemic is that the reopening process is always more challenging than shutting down,” added Shams of the California Restaurant Association. “Why? Because in addition to finding and training or retraining staff, restaurants must reorder food and supplies, reconnect with their guests and generally take a long list of steps to be fully operational again.”Fold in Los Angeles’ right to recall order, and you can guarantee that it will take more than a week for businesses, especially those most affected by shutdown orders, to ramp up operations.L.A. County’s right to recall ordinance ensures workers laid off due to the pandemic have jobs to return to, once the employer is able to resume business. Workers have five days to respond to a recall notice, potentially holding up the hiring process.Despite reopening hurdles and guidelines quandries, Schroeder said economists are optimistic that businesses will bounce back starting in June.“There’s pent up demand, people have been pent up, they want to get out. There’s an anticipation from the economists that that will keep the money circulating and stimulate the economy,” she said.Shams was less optimistic. She told the Business Journal the restaurant industry will be the slowest industry to recover in the coming years.“Restaurants were the first to close in California when the pandemic began, and as you are seeing, they are among the very last to fully reopen,” Shams said.At Maria’s, the L.A. County Health Department visited locations with a tape measure to ensure the 8-foot rule — between chairs, not tables — was enforced. The chain passed the test, even though a look at the most recent public health guidelines for restaurants require only 6 feet between chairs, while the 8-foot-rule applies to tables.“I’m sure for really, really large restaurants, they may be able to up their game a little, and I can tell you I was at a restaurant last night and they were not doing the proper separations,” Alfano noted. “I’m hoping that by June 15, this magical day, we’ll be able to open, truly, at 100 percent capacity so that our customers and staff can feel like it’s a full-service business again.”

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