Lifted restrictions reinvigorate Santa Barbara nightlife

Tristan Williams, Staff Writer

The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly affected Santa Barbara’s nightlife, leaving businesses scrambling to meet the restrictions imposed by California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. Bars were forced to serve food along with their drinks to stay open and all dining was pushed outside. State Street, the heart of downtown Santa Barbara, filled with tables instead of cars, and though this approach kept businesses afloat, owners, employees and patrons alike felt the pressure and uncertainty. This past week relieved that pressure.

On March 17 — St. Patrick’s Day, no less — the county lifted some restrictions as Santa Barbara County entered the state’s red tier, indicating a decrease in the county’s infection rate. This tier is still listed as “substantial,” with four-to-ten new cases per day per 100,000 people, but allows restaurants to open indoor operations up to 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever comes first. Bars must serve food and operate under the restaurant restrictions, while breweries, wineries and distilleries are limited to outdoor operations.

“The first word I think of is ‘taxing,’” said Mar Mullay, a bartender at the cocktail bar Test Pilot in Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone. “We have had to adjust our whole business model and change the experience.” Because Test Pilot now has to operate as a restaurant, Mullay’s position now includes serving tables, acting as a waitress and a bartender. With constantly changing guidelines and the memory of two closures since last summer, Mullay expressed cautious optimism. This optimism grows as vaccines are administered and Mullay has already received the vaccine. Food service personnel are eligible for vaccines as part of Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine rollout.

CDC guidelines place healthcare workers and long term care facility residents in the first phase of the recommended vaccine rollout, Phase 1A. Front line essential workers, such as food service workers, like Mullay, are part of Phase 1B. The phases are allowed to overlap, so California has decided to allow health care providers to commence Phase 1B, making food service workers currently eligible for the vaccine.

“I’m looking forward to my shot,” said Lazer Friedman, a barback at The James Joyce on State Street. Friedman finds it difficult both to adjust to the guidelines and to enforce them. “It is frustrating to remind people to wear masks and social distance,” said Friedman. This frustration increases when Friedman needs to remind those inhibited by alcohol. Nonetheless, he remains hopeful for the service industry, from bars to live events, especially with the vaccine rollout. Friedman remarked how the event-planning company he works for “has started booking weddings again.”

Such optimism was not always apparent. Steven Carmona, a Westmont senior who has worked security at multiple establishments around Santa Barbara, noted how many of his former coworkers were unemployed during the most restrictive period of the economic shutdown. “I’ve had friends even move to other states,” Carmona said. He adamantly related how much this pandemic “has affected people’s personal and professional lives.” Some workers had to readjust in drastic ways to survive the shutdown.

Despite such setbacks, the pulse of Santa Barbara’s nightlife persists. Outdoor live music has resumed at places like the Red Piano, Music Alley and Foxtail Kitchen and Bar, and the outdoor tables are full of patrons donning masks. M Special Brewery even opened a location on State Street back in September.

“It was kind of scary,” said Daysi Perez, a bartender at M Special Brewery. The uncertainty was a challenge for the budding location, but Perez said the management has been vigilant in structuring the operations to meet and enforce the guidelines, including the creation of a kitchen that ensures food is served with drinks. Though the situation is not ideal, Perez is glad that the brewery has adjusted to the “new normal,” and is excited to see more people coming out to State Street. She remarked how happy she was to meet more people and feel the energy of a Santa Barbara night: “That’s the best part of the industry.”

As the downward trend of COVID-19 cases continues, the energy of a Santa Barbara night can return without these restrictions. Until then, businesses and their workers will continue to adapt, giving some semblance of what makes downtown Santa Barbara such a special place.

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