Gabriel Barajas, founder of TacosWay restaurants with one based in the City of San Fernando and other  locations, was anticipating a big year in 2020 which included the opening of a new restaurant in Tokyo, Japan. But the coronavirus pandemic — as it did to restaurant owners worldwide — dramatically disrupted his business

Barajas did still open a restaurant in Japan. But the pandemic forced him to close three others and potentially threatened all of his locations in and out of the San Fernando Valley.

“I’d say business fell off 95%,” Barajas said. “My business suffered because my [takeout] business wasn’t strong at all. I wasn’t prepared to do ‘to-go’ business.”

Barajas managed to survive the year-long disruptions and restrictions caused by the pandemic. 

This week he and other restaurateurs are at last taking a careful yet major step forward: after getting notified they can again serve meals inside their dining rooms in a limited capacity.

“I think we’re on the right track,” Barajas said. “We have vaccines, the [new COVID-19] cases are super low right now…there’s no reason for the government to shut us down again.”

It’s been especially difficult for independent and family owned restaurants. After enduring such a hard financial year, they’re hoping to steadily catch up on their losses.  

“Right now we’re doing okay because people want to [again] sit inside,” said Victor Magaña, owner of the Heavenly Pancakes restaurant in San Fernando.

“For the first six months (of the pandemic) business went down almost 100% and then back up about 25%. We haven’t fully recovered yet, but we have gone back up to 55-60% from what we used to make before.”

LA county health officials gave their approval this week for restaurants to resume indoor dining at a 25% capacity. The move came as the county entered the less restrictive “red” tier of the state’s requirements for businesses to recover from the restrictions of the year-long health pandemic created by COVID-19.

Safety protocols for indoor dining include keeping tables eight feet apart, having only four people at one table at a time, and waiters and waitresses taking orders wearing masks and face shields.

“We’re keeping the distance,” Magaña said. “We sit people at one table and keep the next one empty. We leave a lot of space so people will feel they are safe.”

Off to a strong start, Coco’s — a corporate chain restaurant in Mission Hills — was happily serving a boisterous indoor lunch crowd on Tuesday, March 16, so much so the harried manager there could barely hear questions being asked by The San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol.

But the manager was firm in saying they were enforcing protocols for customer safety.  

“Some people tried to put tables together but no — only four people to a table,” the manager said. “At least that’s how we’re working right now.”

The county’s move into the “red” tier guidelines enables other businesses like movie theaters, museums and zoos to operate indoors, also at 25% capacity. Retail stores, malls, and personal care businesses can increase their indoor capacity to 50%. 

Gyms and fitness centers have the smallest amount of indoor availability — 10% of their capacity, with required masking. But even 10% is better than zero percent.

“I’m hoping that with the vaccines [now available] that things can go back to normal soon,” said a personal trainer who worked at the Fitness 19 health club in Sylmar, which can normally hold a maximum of 70 people at one time. “But you still have those who will be cautious.”

Although county health officials are allowing businesses to operate on a larger scale, they made it clear another shutdown could be mandated if another large spike of COVID-19 cases rips through the region.

As news about limited inside dining was reported on the (italics)San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol’s(italics end) Facebook page and readers were asked whether they felt safe enough to eat at a restaurant or go see a movie was met with support for the option, while many gave an enthusiastic “yes,” and thumbs up, others still expressed reluctance.

Julissa Pelayo wrote,  “Nope, especially not with more infectious variants out there!!”

Reader Rose Bud responded, “The virus is still with friends and family, yet it doesn’t seem to stop many people. Yes, allow businesses to open up. Wear a mask, wash your hands, and to each their own!”

Elizabeth Mendoza posted, “Nope, I can watch new movies in the comfy of my home.”

Restaurant owners are hoping that customers will begin to feel more confident in returning once others share their good experience dining in and life feels more stabilized.  

Alonso Arellano, owner of Chiguacle Restaurant in Sun Valley is celebrating the reopening of limited inside dining by taking his employees and their children to the AMC. He’s booked a private theater room for them to watch “Raya and the Last Dragon.” 

It’s been a roller coaster ride for Arellano who went through great expense to build out patio space at his downtown Olvera Street location for outside dining but found that safety line was pulled back and even that space was ordered to shut down at various times during the pandemic; the popular tourist spot looked like a ghost town. 

Over the last year, while it seemed support was available, he found that COVID stimulus grants for restaurant owners oftentimes were specific to small district areas that didn’t apply to him.  

Fortunately, his Sun Valley location with takeout and their already established outside patio area, kept him going. “I want to thank our customers who helped us to survive yet another major bump in the road we call life,” he said. 

Arellano is looking forward to taking his staff on a well-deserved outing. “We will see a movie with all proper COVID safety measures, it’s a ‘thank you’ for their hard work and dedication,” he said.    

Restaurant owners painfully struggled with having to lay off workers but hope that they will soon be able to bring them back.

“Nobody expected this to last a whole year. But we survived,” Barajas said. “I heard from somebody in the health department that [restaurants could] from be back between 80-100% in August” if COVID-19 statistics continue their decline. “That’s what we’re aiming for.”

Barajas plans to be better prepared in the future for another such unlikely catastrophic event.

“[The pandemic] has taught me to definitely get my ‘to-go’ business up,” Barajas said. “Before it just wasn’t my forte, but I definitely have to get going strong on that. And to also save up money for the bad days.”