Here at Bambu Batu in San Luis Obispo, we try and keep our fingers on the pulse of the downtown community. And of course, that pulse has been exceptionally irregular in recent months, suffering from severe obstruction of circulation, compounded by abnormal stress and dizziness. This Memorial Day Weekend, however, struck like something of an acute trauma.

As many of you may already know, we were early adopters of the Shopping by Appointment policy. While we did not perfectly comply with the all-out-non-essential-shutdown order, we did abide by very strict guidelines of social distancing. The House of Bamboo is plenty spacious enough to provide adequate distance for one hygienic shopkeeper and one individual customer or couple at a time. That was safe, comfortable and effective, under the circumstances.

Defy social distancing at your own risk, but also the risk of others

But when the crowds hit the streets of downtown SLO this weekend, what I saw did not strike me as safe, comfortable or effective. If the dominant scientific paradigm is correct, then I would be frankly concerned about seeing a massive increase in the number of COVID-19 cases all across the state of California, beginning in the first or second week of June.

The sidewalks were packed, the masks were scarce, and the doorways were congested. Just from the handful of people I spoke with this weekend, San Luis Obispo and its beaches had visitors coming from San Francisco, Ventura, Sacramento, Modesto, Bakersfield and Fresno. But you can be sure that vehicles were arriving from every corner of the state, and beyond, and then heading back to those far-flung corners on Monday.

Time and again I had to tell people to wait, slow down, and step back, in order to maintain distance inside the store. I encountered many sensible and cautious guests, some local and some not. But I met just as many who acted thoroughly oblivious to current events. A prevailing attitude, among a significant minority, is that masks are for the weak. “We don’t needs masks,” is something you hear regularly.

I asked one man and his 8- or 10-year-old daughter, as they entered the shop, if they could put on masks. “We don’t believe in them,” he declared, and promptly made an about-face and walked out. Had he not been so deeply offended, I would have been interested to know on what grounds he didn’t believe in masks. Is it that he doesn’t believe in the virus? Or just in the effectiveness of the mask itself? Or is it that he’s just invincible and believes that only octogenarians and high-risk groups need to wear masks?

Models based on this kind of activity do not bode well. That is, if you believe the models, and the science on which they rest. If, on the other hand, you consider rumors of the COVID-19 coronavirus to be greatly exaggerated or falsified completely, you will also want to keep an eye on the reported case numbers coming around the second week of June.

I mean, if there’s not a sharp rise in cases, conspiracy theorists of every stripe will then have evidence that the science must be flawed. Because everything we’ve been told not to do for the last 3 months is happening. People are outside, they’re traveling, they’re congregating, and they’re touching and breathing. And the way I understand it, social distancing only works if everyone does it. It’s not a strategy you can rely on for yourself while your neighbors throw their caution—and their droplets—to the wind.

Why some downtown businesses are waiting to open

By now, in the so-called second phase of opening, you might expect most every downtown restaurant and retail shop to be open for business, if only at a limited capacity. Bars won’t open until phase 3, although many establishments that you might think of as bars actually are open, because the fact that they serve a certain amount of food puts them in the category of restaurant.

But many downtown shops still had their “Closed for Covid” signs out this weekend. And many restaurants were still offering curbside take-out only. When I walked over to Boo Boo Records on Monday, I was surprised to find that they still weren’t open. Luckily however, I was able to convince owner Mike White to let me sneak in and buy a couple sets for strings for my guitar, a great source of solace in this time of pandemic.

Mike told me that he had felt very tempted to open up his iconic music store for the big holiday weekend. But ultimately he decided against it, in favor of waiting until this week to make the opening more something for locals than for the out-of-towners. In a business like his, it’s very difficult to keep shoppers from handling the merchandise. Shopping for vinyl and CDs means thumbing through the stacks, and that’s pretty unavoidable. So Boo Boo Records will be requiring all customers to wear facemasks and to use the shop’s complimentary hand sanitizer upon entering the store.

Mike also explained to me how he was using his PPP Loan money to hire back a couple of his employees full time. But some of his other staff members continue to stay at home, where they are making more money on unemployment than they would on the payroll.

On Sunday night, I had my first in-restaurant dining experience over at Shalimar in the Marigold Plaza. It was delicious as always, but never had I seen their dining room so sparsely occupied. Besides our party of three, only one other family was eating inside. There was another table occupied on the patio, but the vast majority of their food was still being picked up for take-out.

Just up the street from us, I found that Big Sky Cafe was also waiting to re-open. Over the past few months, they have adapted pretty well to the curbside take-out program, and in the meantime they’ve embarked on some ambitious remodeling work inside the restaurant.

They told me they want to wait a couple weeks and see how the re-opening goes for the other restaurants, and for the community at large, before deciding how to proceed. We agreed that after seeing the lack of social distancing happening this weekend, a surge in case numbers seems pretty likely by mid-June.

And like every business in these strange times, Big Sky is getting creative. As recipients of PPP loans, they are required to hire back a certain amount of staff. But with only curbside take-out, they don’t really need their whole kitchen crew and server staff back on duty. So now they are paying many of their cooks and dishwashers—many who work second jobs in construction—to remodel and repaint the dining room. Keeping busy and keeping their staff on the payroll, Big Sky is looking forward to a grand re-opening with a fresh new look, post-pandemic.

What will Downtown SLO look like, post-pandemic?

If anything, my observations of human behavior in downtown SLO over Memorial Day weekend have me convinced that the city’s proposal to close streets and widen sidewalks for pedestrians is actually a great and necessary idea. Clearly, you can’t force people to socially distance, but you can make it easier. The temptation to return to normal seems irresistible for many, and a little revision in urban planning could go a long way to remind people that the condition formally known as normal is simply not a safe option.

More observations of the COVID-19 Pandemic in Downtown SLO

Read more about how the COVID-19 Pandemic played out at Bambu Batu and around Downtown San Luis Obispo.

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