YUBA CITY, Calif. (Reuters) - California state restrictions banning restaurants from offering sit-down meals have not yet been lifted, but you wouldn’t know that in downtown Yuba City, where families queued cheerfully for tables at the Happy Viking Sports Pub and Eatery.
The restaurant opened its doors to the public for the first time in 50 days on Monday, after county officials ruled that restaurants, retail stores and fitness centers could open if patrons and staff obeyed social distancing rules - even though restrictions technically remain in place for the entire state.
“We were tired of being in quarantine,” said Tyler Niesen, who had lunch at the Happy Viking with his wife Sidney, four-year-old daughter and two month old son. “We actually got to see people - family and friends.”
The family, who were not wearing masks, ordered burgers and greeted friends at the bustling restaurant. The couple said they were not worried about contracting the virus while out and about.
The moves by Modoc, Yuba and Sutter counties north of Sacramento to allow businesses to open came as Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, said he would allow some “low-risk” businesses like bookstores to re-open beginning on Friday.
He also said communities with low incidents of COVID-19 infections could apply to be released more quickly from additional restrictions.
The three counties in the north didn’t wait for permission. They’re still calling on residents to cover their faces when they are interacting with others, and asking older people to continue to shelter at home. In Yuba and Sutter counties, schools, places of worship and theaters are still prohibited from opening.
Sandee Drown, who owns the Happy Viking with her husband Chris, wore a black mask with the logo of the San Francisco Giants baseball team on it. Her staff also wore masks, but customers did not.
The restaurant lost a quarter of its business during the shutdown, and laid off all but eight of 47 employees, Drown said.
Aware that moves to re-open the economy have taken on a political tinge, with some Republicans pushing against restrictions imposed by the Democratic governor, Drown said that the involvement of health director Phuong Luu gave her confidence that re-opening would be safe.
California is one of about two dozen U.S. states that still have strict coronavirus restrictions in place, and residents have been chafing at the prolonged lockdown.
From birthday parties with social distancing to thronging the beaches on warm weekends, residents have begun to test the limits of the public health restrictions. A few restaurants, hair salons and retail shops have reopened on their own, according to local media reports, even as California’s coronavirus cases and deaths continue an upward trajectory.
Vocal groups of protesters, including right-leaning groups and anti-vaccination activists, have crowded the grounds of the state capitol in Sacramento, demanding that social and economic life be allowed to resume.
Newsom was conciliatory about the moves by Yuba and Sutter counties on Monday, saying they could come into compliance later in the week.
In the Southern California community of Victorville in San Bernardino County, gym owner Jacob Lewis re-opened his business on May 1, without waiting for either state or county officials to give him the green light. On Monday some patrons wore masks and practiced social distancing - and some did not.
“I’m big on the constitution so if you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you don’t, don’t,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s freedom.”
Assemblyman James Gallagher, a Republican who represents Yuba City in the state legislature, said his county was basing its decisions on data and science, and had ordered residents to shelter at home a day before the governor issued his statewide order in March.
But he said that cases in the county had since plateaued, with just one person in the hospital with COVID-19 as of Monday. Social distancing worked, but at a great cost to the economy, he said.
“It put a lot of people out of work,” Gallagher said. “Not to mention the damage it’s going to do to local and state governments and programs that everyone relies on.”
Reporting by Sharon Bernstein in Yuba City; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Victorville; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Jane Wardell