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Many Californians keep masks on as economy reopens, saying better safe than sorry

Masking-wearing employees prep food at Langer's Delicatessen-Restaurant
For the first time in over a year, Langer’s Delicatessen-Restaurant in L.A. preps food for in-person dining Tuesday.
(Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

Despite Tuesday’s massive reopening of the California economy and the loosening of COVID-19 rules that have been in place for more than a year, many people continued to wear masks in public, saying they felt it was better to be safe than sorry.

At Charlie’s Best Burgers in East Los Angeles, patrons and the staff treated California’s reopening day like any other.

The burger and Mexican food chain still required customers to wear masks and maintain social distancing. The restaurant marked three of its seven booths unusable and capped capacity at 20 customers.

“Right now, there are just too many unvaccinated people to not ask our customers to wear masks,” said restaurant general manager Jorge Jimenez, 35. “If you look at the area, it’s been hit hard by COVID-19. It doesn’t make sense right now to change.”

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According to county records, more than 25,000 COVID-19 cases have been reported in East L.A., along with 432 deaths. That breakdown includes Boyle Heights (17,535 cases and 304 deaths), Lincoln Heights (15,722 cases and 162 deaths) and El Sereno (14,945 cases and 110 deaths).

“We’re not able to tell who is vaccinated and who is not, so this is the best thing to do,” Jimenez said.

When his restaurant first implemented a mask mandate last spring, Jimenez said several customers refused and left. Since then, however, the community has generally accepted the protocol.

There were no complaints from customers Tuesday.

Tuesday is not the first time California has tried to reopen its economy during the COVID-19 pandemic. But officials are hopeful it will be the last.

Friends Albert Ramon, Kenneth Ruiz and Yerson Henriquez, all 19, had pulled down their surgical and cloth masks as they dined on burger, fries, pancakes and a chorizo burrito.

“Honestly, I still think it’s way too early,” Ramon said of lifting the mask mandate. “I was surprised that the change was made.”

Part of what has made Charlie’s Best Burger appealing, Henriquez said, is that the restaurant still enforces a mask mandate.

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“It’s just weird to walk around and see people without masks because we still need to get vaccination numbers up,” he said.

Other businesses along South Atlantic Boulevard — La Raza Market, Basket Burger Café and Mi Cabaña Restaurant — were also asking patrons to continue wearing masks.

Still, Ruiz said it was “refreshing” not to have to wear a mask all the time and looks forward to a maskless California.

As of Tuesday, restrictions were lifted at most businesses, and Californians fully vaccinated for COVID-19 could go without masks in most settings.

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In Long Beach, Christopher Hudak read the new sign taped outside of CoffeeDrunk: “Your safety is important to us. Masks are recommended.”

The 24-year-old kept his on as he walked inside and ordered his usual iced coffee.

Despite the new state rules that drop mask requirements for vaccinated customers in most situations, Hudak said he didn’t plan to leave his face covering behind anytime soon.

“I’m still used to it,” he said as he sat inside the shop. “Right now, it’s mainly a habit.”

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Realizing he had forgotten his mask before entering a Whole Foods in West Hollywood, Adam Cyril asked a clerk if the store could give him one.

The employee replied, much to Cyril’s surprise, that he didn’t need one.

“It felt like I was restored as a human being again, and I got some rights back.” said Cyril, who was sporting a Sublime shirt and sunglasses with diamond-shaped lenses.

The 27-year-old found only one other woman — a “brave lady” — shopping inside while barefaced. It felt novel and commonplace at the same time, he said, adding that he almost snapped a selfie of him among the sea of masked patrons.

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“It actually felt like, ‘Boom, am I in a time vortex? Did I just go back in time?’” he said. “I didn’t realize what was going on.”

Amid the pandemic, the Manhattan Beach resident has commuted almost daily to his construction job near the upscale market on Fairfax Avenue and Sunset Boulevard. It’s been hard for him to drive for such long periods wearing a mask, which he said irritates his nose and has caused acne breakouts on his face.

Knowing he can retire the face covering in most places was a relief, he said.


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