LOS ANGELES – When Angeleno Wine Co. reopened its tasting room, co-owner Amy Luftig Viste was torn as old friends reunited for the first time since the pandemic closed so many stores that big cities looked like ghost towns.
Even with limited capacity, lively conversations flowed from the tables between the casks of aging wine and echoed off the brick walls of the winery, tucked away in an industrial area on the edge of downtown Los Angeles.
“It felt like the winery had come back to life,” Luftig Viste said on Sunday, the day after it reopened after being closed for but two weeks for the past 13 months.
The noise in a small space is expected to get louder if capacity is allowed to double to 50% as Los Angeles and San Francisco lead the way for California operations to reopen more widely.
The state’s major cities are likely to be the only major urban areas in the state that have met virus case thresholds for the least restrictive level as of Tuesday. This allows indoor bars to reopen, allows larger crowds to cheer for Major League Baseball Dodgers and Giants, and expand capacity in restaurants, cinemas, amusement parks, gyms, and other facilities.
It’s a notable turnaround considering that California was the epicenter of the US virus outbreak just a few months ago.
The two cities weathered the pandemic differently, but appear in the same spot after a nationwide shutdown in March 2020. Streets, shutters and restaurants have been closed and office buildings have been darkened.
San Francisco briefly hit the Least Restrictive Yellow Level for a brief period in October, the only urban area to do so before an alarming spike forced a withdrawal in some cases. LA only emerged from the most restrictive tier in March.
Now California has the lowest case rate in the country. Los Angeles County, home to a quarter of the state’s nearly 40 million residents and a disproportionately large number of the state’s 60,000 deaths, did not record a single COVID-19 death on Sunday or Monday.
As the spring warms up, the highways are congested, workers are returning to offices, and people are going to restaurants and breweries.
On Sunday, drivers in the Arts District in downtown LA circled the block looking for parking. The guests filled the sidewalk tables in the sausage kitchen, ate sausages and drank Belgian and German beer. A line of people waiting to be seated at Angel City Brewery stretched down the street.
Chris Sammons said he felt a civic obligation to get out and support businesses.
“It almost feels like a chore to be involved with the city,” said Sammons. “We have to bring LA back to life.”
It was the first time for his friend Stephen Tyler to say he was excited after crouching and vaccinating himself for so long.
“It’s just good to be back in town, to be with people,” said Tyler.
In San Francisco, business has picked up in Mixt, a popular lunch spot for salad lovers in the financial district. But it’s not pre-pandemic levels when lines spill outdoors, said Leslie Silverglide, the chain’s co-founder and CEO. She plans to open two more stores in the city center in the coming weeks.
“It seems like people are coming back,” she said. “They look forward to having lunch with colleagues again.”
Fear of contracting the virus resulted in a huge drop in the number of local transport drivers. Jason Alderman said he felt like a kid on his first day of school riding a local train to San Francisco. He works for the online payment start-up Fast, which will reopen its headquarters as soon as San Francisco allows it at the end of March.
“Instead of feeling like a hollowed-out ghost town that people were quick to leave, it felt like there were green shoots of life,” he said. “I felt a stab of energy that was there earlier.”
When the lockdown was issued in March 2020, an estimated 137,500 employees at companies in San Francisco, including Google, Facebook and Uber, appeared to have disappeared overnight.
Moving trucks being moved from households to more spacious suburban homes and younger folks just packed up their cars and left as they could work from anywhere. Apartment rents have gone down, but now they’re increasing.
The vacancy rate in San Francisco is 18% compared to 10% last year, said John Chang, senior vice president at Marcus & Millichap, a commercial real estate finance and advisory firm. In Los Angeles the vacancy rate is 17.5% compared to 13.5% in the previous year.
Perhaps more tellingly, only 14% of key cards are used to access offices in San Francisco, compared to 24% in LA. At the other end of the spectrum is Dallas, where data showed that 41% of the cards were used, reflecting the different approaches to the virus across the two states.
Chang said workers suddenly left San Francisco when the original shutdown order went into effect. He expects the return to be gradual.
Lisa Elder, a paralegal who has been with her office since July, said that even with some restaurants and cafes that recently reopened, the area is a shadow of their former selves.
“Before COVID filled this place, there were tons of people eating in the alley, and now it’s like quiet. It’s crazy, ”she said.
At Angeleno Wine, Luftig Viste said most of their customers had been vaccinated and they were all looking forward to being back outside.
“It’s just a great honor to be where people come to break the seal when we get out,” she said.
Har reported from San Francisco. Olga R. Rodriguez contributed to this report from San Francisco.