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Berkeley Has Mixed Feelings About Newly Reopened Restaurants

As restaurants reopen for indoor dining, conflicted feelings arise from the Berkeley community. Some are enthusiastic, while others wonder if it is happening too soon.

Indoor dining reopened the week of March 6, allowing restaurants to serve a maximum of 25% capacity or 100 people indoors, depending on which is a smaller number. This has changed the scene for waiters, managers, cooks, and customers alike. For many, this change is a positive one, allowing for a greatly missed tradition to make a reappearance in the community, as well as creating more revenue for local businesses. To others, however, it can be scary or uncomfortable during a time of caution and extreme safety. 

For restaurants, this switch is a major improvement for business, as well as quality of life. Trevor Ledergerber, owner of La Mediterranee on College Avenue, described his own experience with reopening the indoor seating area. “I was very hesitant at first; we were kind of the last ones on the block to do it. But now that we have it, it’s so nice to see that people are so happy to have things go back to normal — even the staff,” said Ledergerber.

In addition to the happiness of customers, profits have increased now that there is more room to seat customers and no one is waitlisted. “It’s been better for business. Sales have definitely been higher. I’d probably say with the extra tables it’s given us about 20% extra (income), which allowed us to hire some new people, and hire back some people that we had to lay off at the beginning,” he explained. For Ledergerber and his employees, reopening has helped the restaurant survive. 

Despite its upsides, indoor dining presents challenges to restaurants as well. In Ledergerber’s case, the combination of indoor and outdoor seating requires staff to cover double the area. “The more people, the more attention and staff we’ve had to increase. It’s been a lot more taxing on us,” he said. The staff are constantly on the move, running between the kitchen, indoor tables, and outdoor seating area, which can cause fatigue. This is an unforeseen challenge that the staff of La Mediteranee are looking forward to leaving behind. 

Michael Kalkanis-Ellis, the general manager at Jupiter, a restaurant in downtown Berkeley, faces the challenge of customers who refuse to comply with health and safety protocols now that indoor dining has opened up at the restaurant. While most customers who dine at Jupiter cause no problems and agree to wear their masks when not eating, others refuse and purposefully ignore the guidelines set by experts. He explained that when asked to put on a mask, some individuals refuse or are upset by this. 

“The people who are a problem are the ones who are intentionally skirting the rules, and also don’t really want to do what we ask them to do, so as soon as you walk away, they take [their masks] back off,” said Kalkanis-Ellis. He encounters at least one of these customers per day. As a fully-vaccinated individual, this does not make Kalkanis-Ellis extremely uncomfortable. However, it is still putting customers at risk and causes anxiety for some. 

“There are some people I work with and there are certainly some guests of ours who definitely feel uncomfortable. Like, [there are] some staff members who haven’t had their vaccines so it’s a little bit more difficult for them,” Kalkanis-Ellis explained. 

Indoor dining is just one aspect of normal life that has been a foreign idea to many people for almost a year now. Although there are numerous residents who are having a positive reaction to this, returning to normalcy is not something everyone agrees it is time for. 

Ella Horn, a Berkeley High School (BHS) sophomore in Academic Choice (AC), finds the switch to indoor dining somewhat unsettling. “I have to be honest, it makes me feel a little uncomfortable. That could be because we’ve been wearing masks all year — literally all year — and, as of right now, it seems unnatural to see someone without a mask,” she said. Horn understands that the level of safety people feel varies drastically from person to person. She wanted to remind everyone that it’s important to listen to how you feel and ask for help if you need it. 

“Don’t be hesitant to tell someone when you feel uncomfortable with them not having a mask on, or being respectful of your wishes and your boundaries, because everyone has a different level of comfort — especially right now [during] a pandemic,” Horn said. 

Suddenly, working or eating in an environment where many people are unmasked and indoors can be unsettling for some. Even for those who are fully vaccinated, this change brings a mix of emotions to the table. However, this is a clear step towards a world without the pandemic, and while it is unsettling to many, it is also a demonstration of the community easing back to its pre-COVID routines. 

“I think we’re conditioned now to be a little bit scared. But everyday is moving a little bit more towards the future,” said Ledergerber. Kalkanis-Ellis agreed and wanted to encourage the Berkeley community to continue to support their local businesses. The pandemic is still taking a serious financial toll on them, even with this new development. 

Kalkanis-Ellis concluded, “We would ask not just for ourselves but for restaurants as a whole that people continue to come out and support us. Restaurants are still struggling right now — we’re doing better, certainly, than we have been over the last year, but we’re nowhere near being back to normal.”

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