Throngs of people at the Thursday night Farmers market and seeing smiles freed from masks was once unheard of — but it is now the new reality for San Luis Obispo. Businesses suffered during the pandemic, but with the state reopening and the lifting of the mask mandate, things are looking up once again.
Erica Hamilton, owner of downtown clothing boutique Blackwater, said her and her team’s resilience shone during the pandemic.
“Through the past two years we’ve learned to just roll with the punches and do the best we can with the situation that we’re given,” Hamilton said.
Due to the reopening of the Thursday night Farmers Market, those nights are now particularly busy for Blackwater, Hamilton said.
Various other businesses have seen an influx in patrons now that they can fully reopen. Patrick Hayes, co-owner of Dr. Cain’s Comics said restrictions impacted the store dramatically due to the small size of his shop.
“We’re really really tiny — pretty much a hallway,” Hayes said. “We were at three or four people [in the store] depending on what tier we were at, so that restricted things pretty severely.”
Even with the restrictions, they maintained a steady stream of business due to book subscribers who participated in curbside pickup. However, typical industry events, like Free Comic Book day, were cancelled or delayed.
Now with the lifted restrictions, the business welcomes more foot traffic since customers no longer wait outside for admission.
Similarly, gathering places, such as the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art, are excited to host and connect with their patrons.
According to Executive director of the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art Leann Standish, the museum closed their doors at the beginning of the pandemic.
Now with the state reopening, community members are eager to visit. The museum welcomed a steady crowd, happy to be out and about, Standish said.
The people are what Standish said she and her team missed most about their jobs.
“We’re in the service where we serve the public,” Standish said. “We were a gathering place, so we were missing all the fundamental things about the work we do.”
Mac McConnell, an employee at Central Coast Surfboards, also looks forward to connecting again with customers — face-to-face.
McConnell said he appreciates the simple pleasures of seeing smiles and more physical interaction again.
“No longer having to wear masks has been nice – seeing a lot more people’s faces and just a lot more activity in the shop,” McConnell said.
McConnell said the store opened for limited capacity in May last year and since then business has been steady.
The pandemic birthed new surfers, according to McConnell.
“We’ve had a lot of new surfers in the area,” McConnell said. “There’s not much else to do in that time, so business has been doing really well.”
McConnell said he hopes to only strengthen ties with customers as the city reopens.
“We were able to build a lot more relationships during COVID[-19] times, so we hope to see a lot more familiar faces,” McConnell said.
For restaurants, like Splash Café, the pandemic forced them to connect with customers in innovative ways, while dealing with staff losses.
Owner of Splash Café Joanne Currie described the last year and a half as a “rollercoaster.”
“Last year, March and April were terrible,” Currie said. “People were terrified and not going anywhere. We weren’t allowed to have any people inside at all.”
The café lost more than half of their staff because Cal Poly students make up a large portion of their team.
Even with the hardship and uncertainty, Currie and her team devised ways to connect with and support the community.
“We sold flour [and yeast] for people to do their own baking because the grocery store shelves were empty,” Currie said. “We sold cupcake decorating kits for kids that were trapped at home.”
Currie said her and her team are excited to reconnect with customers with more ease and closeness than before.
“Being able to not have a mask on, you can actually smile at [customers] because sometimes it was really hard to communicate properly,” Currie said.
For their fully-vaccinated staff, masks are no longer required and most customers do not wear one. With the state reopening and the lifting of the mandate, Currie said she has seen a definite increase in business.
Currie said she is hopeful for the future, as things are already looking up.
“It has been quite a journey, but now we’re bouncing back,” Currie said. “We’re still not fully staffed, but we’re getting there.”
Other businesses like Tails Pet Boutique were not as dramatically impacted by COVID-19, but felt its wider effects.
Manager at Tails Pet Boutique Erik Purinton said business remained consistent during the pandemic because of the necessity of food, yet he noticed the stark effect of the virus.
“[I’m most excited] just being able to see the town function again and not be a ghost town,” Purinton said.
As San Luis Obispo slowly transitions out of the pandemic, he looks forward to a sense of normalcy and the town’s rebirth — over a year in the making.