As some Maricopa businesses made a cautious comeback in May, so did Maricopa shoppers.
“We were going crazy at the house,” said Kandy Christopherson of Rancho El Dorado.
Since Gov. Doug Ducey issued the “Stay at Home” executive order in March, Christopherson’s main excursions were to the grocery store and Costco. So, when retailers like Ross started to roll out the re-openings in mid-May, she was there.
In fact, she and her family were there for two and a half hours before the doors opened. When deals are on the line, they know how to queue.
For daughter Abbie Christopherson, the patient wait was for “retail therapy” at a favorite store. Being stuck at home, she said, made her feel angry, and some serious deals seemed like the release point she needed.
Luring customers with deep discounts did create lines, but Maricopans were still cautious about being in crowds, especially among those not wearing facemasks.
“I don’t wanna be the government lab rat to see if it’s safe yet,” Adrian Basil said.
Others agreed, including Esther Gerard, who was still playing it safe. “This is not over and will come back in the fall,” she said.
Most restaurants stayed open for curbside or delivery service during the “Stay at Home” order, but re-opening dining rooms was a process of earning trust.
Native Grill & Wings re-opened for dine-in May 13 with a full set of safeguards in place for customers and employees, according to owner Pat Kieny. They included mandatory facemasks and temperature checks for workers, capacity reduced by about 50%, enhanced sanitation protocols and disposable menus.
“It is going to be interesting to find out when we get to capacity how long the wait is going to be … the governor basically said go to your favorite restaurant, eat your dinner, go home, [don’t] stay too long,” Kieny said. “Well, we don’t have sports now so there isn’t really much hanging out, and hopefully most of the patrons will come in, get their meal, have good service and then go home to let the next people come through. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
Dental offices, too, had to show they were meeting the protocols necessary to bring back patients when allowed to re-open May 1.
The Arizona State Board of Dental Examiners waived many of its fees for members during the time offices were closed. It later stated, “Dental workers (including dentists, hygienists, dental assistants, and other office staff) are at risk of infectious disease through patient contact and contact with the patient care environment. Employers are required to train workers about the necessity of PPE, including how to use it, put it on, remove it and safely dispose of it.”
Earning trust was also part of the re-opening process for one of the area’s biggest employers, Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino.
“Over the past several weeks the Tribal Council, along with Caesars management, have been monitoring the situation here in Arizona and across the country, making sure we had the best and most accurate information needed to re-open the casino,” General Manager Robert Livingston said.
The May 15 re-opening was only partial. There were fewer slot machines with more distancing and limited seating at the blackjack table. Poker, keno and BINGO rooms were unavailable as were the spa and gym. Some of the eateries were open.
Like Harrah’s Ak-Chin, UltraStar Multi-tainment Center had a partial opening, using only a third of the facility, and that was at half capacity.
“We were thrilled that we got a very controlled, measured opening response,” General Manager Adam Saks said. “We were able to handle a very manageable flow, experience our new procedures, let our team settle into the things that they need to do in a very organized fashion. It was really nice.”
UltraStar opened the bowling alley, arcade and 347 Grill as phase one. The next two phases are not on a strict calendar. Saks said the customer response to precautionary measures taken by staff “has been nothing but positive.”
For now, opening the theaters has little purpose, because major production companies are not releasing new films until July 1.
“Our overall job that we wanted to accomplish was that our guests as well as our employees felt safe in this environment that we have,” said Laurie McCartney, assistant general manager.
Gaining the trust of guests and employees required spending the last two months preparing, Saks said. That allowed management to give employees a “cohesive, clear plan that consisted of education, of PPE, changing procedures.” That includes guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and National Restaurant Association and new protocols added by Chef Frank Abeta.
The company provided all employees whimsical facemasks, and much of the staff is gloved. Bowling balls and shoes are disinfected between every user. The entry into the restaurant is limited, half the tables were removed, and several booths darkened. Customers pay at a cashier station with a barrier in place. Menus are disposable, utensils are wrapped and no condiments are on the tables.
As UltraStar will be using a fraction of its employees for an unknown amount of time, Saks said they had to make the difficult decision to furlough members of the team. Returning staff had to sign several documents saying they will adhere to the new protocols.
“It’s just not like the old days,” Saks said. “The rule of thumb in a restaurant has always been wash your hands and don’t touch your face. When you saw a server scratch their face, you went by him in a side station and said, ‘Hey, Jim, you can’t do that. That looked rough on the floor.’ Now, [if] you’re seen scratching your face, you could lose your job.”
The challenge, for UltraStar and other Maricopa businesses is anticipating every touch point and making sure that point either has a strict cleaning schedule or is shut down. Two of the businesses most in demand by residents, restaurants and salons, have to go through a similar cleaning protocol and limited access.
Hair and nail salons, where staff worked in gloves and facemasks, were the first choice for many Maricopans wanting to take advantage of new openings while others wanted to make the most of getting out of the house.
Autumn Simpson’s first trip out in nearly 10 weeks was to the grocery store, but she’s ready to be more adventuresome. “Within the next couple weeks, I’ll try going to some museums/science centers in the summer, going to a restaurant, going to a hotel pool and maybe joining a gym. I’m being cautious but have to get used to going in public again at some point.”
Based on customer response, some businesses may adopt temporary measures as long term, like takeout menus and curbside service at restaurants. Whatever the full rollout looks like in coming weeks, Maricopans are ready for the service.
“Now, I’m just waiting on the buffets to open back up,” said Robert Shimkus. “I’m tired of my cooking.”
Bob McGovern contributed to this story.
This story appears in the June issue of InMaricopa.