On reopening day, a stark contrast in two tourist meccas

‘Today is pretty lousy, frankly’

By Benjamin Schneider

At around 2 p.m. on a magnificently sunny, room-temperature Tuesday, Grant Street was still shaking off the sleepy dust. On the first day of California’s full reopening, Chinatown’s main drag was a far cry from the touristic throngs that used to clog its sidewalks.

Many storefronts remained shuttered, and those that were open saw only a trickle of customers. Chinatown merchants, and curious onlookers like myself, found that the elimination of virtually all COVID restrictions did not produce an instant return to normal.

“Today is pretty lousy, frankly,” Albert Chang, owner of Chinatown Kite Shop told me. “I doubt we’ll have significant tourists right away. My hope is on the 4th of July, that week.”

Chang also shared his unique method of market research. “I’ll be watching Disneyland attendance, just to get an indication of the tourists.”

One block down, Cindy Sie, a cashier at a near-empty Bargain Bazaar, held the same hope as Chang. “There’s no one here, only the two of us,” she said. “Maybe this weekend or July 4 will be better.”

Both Bargain Bazaar and Chinatown Kite Shop only recently reopened on weekdays. And so far, weekday tourists are scarce.

I walked across the street to Magical Ice Cream, where owner Sam Chen was rolling elaborate combinations of fruit and ice cream into desserts resembling flower arrangements. Chen said most of his customers were day trippers from not too far away.

“We’re getting a lot more people from around the area: LA, Sacramento, Tracy,” he said. Still, times have been tough, especially with the disappearance of nightlife. “After 6 or 7, there’s not a lot of people walking around.”

On Waverly Place, a block up from Grant, I spied a few tourists milling among the locals. One of them was Jaime DeFeo, who was visiting from Texas with her family. “I’m excited this much is open,” she said, adding that she feared indoor restaurants might be closed.

Despite the big reopening today, DeFeo noted that people generally seemed cautious. “There’s definitely a lot more people wearing masks here than in Texas.”

Less than a mile north, at Pier 39, I beheld a remarkably different scene. Restaurant servers and shopkeepers were, for the most part, too busy helping customers to speak with me.

Pier 39 employee Gilda Tablizo stood at the entrance greeting visitors, informing them that they didn’t need to wear a mask, but that they should have one handy in case it’s required at a particular business. She said management is still compiling a list of all of the establishments’ mask policies.

When I asked her about the impact of the relaxed rules, Tablizo replied, “People are more relaxed. Everyone seems to be happy without me yelling at them to wear a mask.”

Tablizo estimated that there might be more people today than on a typical weekday, but the crowd was nothing compared to recent weekends. Pier 39 has been welcoming as many 20,000 visitors a day some weekends — more than it would typically see pre-pandemic. Her personal theory as to why: “People just needed to get out and enjoy life.”

I strolled down the wharf to Musée Mécanique, San Francisco’s legendary collection of vintage arcade games, which was open to the public for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. The old warehouse was just as chaotic and creepy as in the olden days of 2019, with Laughing Sal scaring a new generation of kids.

Some of the oldest folks in the arcade were Rick Sohl and Denise Tongé, two Bay Area natives who remember playing at Musée Mécanique’s old location at the Cliff House as children. The couple told me they hadn’t been out much over the past year, and it showed by their enthusiasm.

When I asked them about the best part of reopening, Tongé replied, “Being able to see people smile.” Although banana splits at Ghirardelli Square were up there as well, she added.

While Sohl shared Tongé’s joy at being out and about again, he said the whole thing felt a bit strange. “I’m getting reacclimated. Normalcy was about 100 years ago as far as I’m concerned.”

bschneider@sfweekly.com

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