Voice 1: There’s a lot of anxiety, and I wish that we could go back to normal tomorrow and everything could be like it was. But I think that’s a little bit too optimistic for where the U.S. is at this moment.
Voice 2: Anything that keeps me safe is going to have to be because of what I choose to do for myself.
Voice 3: I’m not worried about getting COVID. I’m not really worried about getting sick or going to the hospital. But I do think that we should still err on the side of caution.
Voice 4: There’s going to be a lot of differences in how some people are going to embrace the new openness.
Voice 5: We spent more than a year getting into habits because the stakes were extraordinarily high.
Marissa Garcia: I’m Marissa Garcia, a digital media intern with the Dow Jones News Fund. My team and I have interviewed people about their feelings about returning to normal as more Americans are getting their COVID-19 vaccines.
In this episode, I interview Roland Miyamoto.
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Roland and his brother own RSM Oriental Foodmart & Restaurant in Hercules, California. The store has been in their family ever since 1973.
Roland Miyamoto: For my family and all our customers that come in, [they say,] “Oh, I remember you as a little kid here, and now you are taking care of the store from your dad’s legacy and everything.”
Marissa: Roland and his brother inherited the store from his parents in 2014. Along with selling groceries, they cook and serve hot food together at the store.
Roland: We are mostly Filipino-based hot food. So it’s basically lutong bahay. In English, that’s a home cooked meal. I mean, we’re no five-, four-star food or anything, but it’s comfort food for a lot. And the portions we cook, we cook as if you were to cook at home.
Marissa: On the menu, you can find sisig, or chopped fried pork with onions, peppers, and calamansi juice. You can also order turon, fried sweet spring rolls with jackfruit and banana.
They make food the locals love. Their store has been a part of the community for more than 40 years. Yet the pandemic still brought on financial challenges. Sales got so slow that Roland wondered if they were going to make it.
Roland: It was stressful to work in an environment where it felt like it was a ghost town. It was literally, like, there was no one. Like, we’d get a wave of people coming in, and the next four hours, no customers at all. So that was a little uneasy for us. And then our sales now since everything’s opening up, it’s just getting busier and busier.
Marissa: Business has been picking up again for Roland and his brother. As of early June, more than 65% of the population 12 and older are fully vaccinated in Contra Costa County, where Roland lives. Families are now convening and celebrating together again, especially on the weekends.
Roland: We’re getting orders upon orders. Graduations are happening, birthday parties are happening. We get our sales from mainly party trays because the party trays, we know that we can feed more people, and people like to get together, especially Filipino families. For whatever reason, they like to get together. They’ll call us and they say, “Hey, can you cook this for us? In, like, a couple of days?” “Yeah, sure.” And we’ll get it done.
Marissa: Social media campaigns to support local small businesses have sprung up through the pandemic, and these have been quite beneficial for Roland’s store.
Roland: Like, everyone was hashtagging for local businesses. And I noticed it. People were tagging me in it or telling us, “Oh, support your local business here,” and just brought in customers. And it helped a lot. And I was very thankful for my friends and spreading the word when they said that. It definitely helped us stay afloat.
Marissa: The social media campaigns successfully inspired one demographic in particular to shop at Roland’s store.
Roland: Now, I’m seeing more of the younger crowd coming in, supporting us, buying whatever they can, even if it’s just like a drink or a one-item meal. I’m noticing a lot more new customers than there were before. It’s definitely changed a lot more now.
Marissa: But with reopening comes reservations. Roland’s job exposes him constantly to the public, and he is keenly aware of the risks that imposes during a pandemic, even though he’s fully vaccinated.
Roland: I mean, I’m excited that it’s opening, but at the same time in the back of my head, you know, who knows? There’s always that chance that I can get COVID, and I don’t want to bring it home. So that’s why every time I come home, I’m always “clothes are gone and I’m straight to the shower” all the time.
Marissa: California officially reopened its economy on June 15, which includes the removal of both social distancing requirements and capacity limits. Roland is already preparing for the additional responsibilities that will come with this change. He anticipates hiring a part-time high schooler to help. Roland knows a lot of sanitizing will need to be done.
Roland: Once we open up our dining area, I’ll have to put in more work, definitely, to sanitize and clean the tables. Before I used to always sanitize the chairs and the tables. But now it’s just like, even more so now. I have to make sure that every time a customer leaves, I have to make sure that’s clean all the way. Or I have to flip the chair, so I know to tell them, “Oh, this isn’t sanitized yet. Can you give me some time so I can get it cleaned up?”
Marissa: In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention loosened mask guidelines, leading many states to drop their mask mandates. Many are now leaving mask wearing policies up to the discretion of business owners.
This leaves Roland with some open-ended interpretation. He’s decided that he wants his customers to do what is comfortable for them.
Roland: I want to open more in the store, but I’m still going to limit it. Like, I’m going to make sure that I still have distance for the customers. And I want to make my customers comfortable when they come into my store. I’ll have to talk to my customers like, “OK, hey, I have customers who are shopping without masks,” or, “I have customers eating here and they don’t have a mask on. Are you comfortable with that?” And if they’re not, I don’t blame them. “But can you wait until they’re done? Then you can come in, and then shop with your mask on.” And, you know, I just want to cater to my customers because they support me and everything, and they want to shop here. I just want to make sure that they’re comfortable.
Marissa: Though he won’t force his customers to wear masks, he won’t stop wearing his mask any time soon.
Roland: For me, I’m always going to wear my mask at work now. It’s going to be a regular thing. Like, I’m not going to stop wearing it. I still have the shield, the counter shield. So, it splits me and the customers. So, at least I have that as well still.
Marissa: Everyone will handle returning to normal differently. People will pick up old habits and activities again at speeds that work for their comfort levels.
A member on my team, Paige Barnes, spoke with Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist and Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Dr. Jennifer Nuzzo: There’s no rush to return. You know, it’s been a tough year, and all of us, you know, emerge at different rates. So I don’t judge anybody who’s still not willing to forgo the mask, who’s still not willing to go hang out in restaurants or bars with their friends. We all make those calculations differently. I do hope that people can feel liberated from getting vaccinated. But I also recognize that for some people that just may take a little bit more time for them to feel that way.
Marissa: Vaccinated people have a low risk of getting COVID-19. And Roland believes in the science. He trusts what doctors and nurses say. But he still feels the need to be vigilant.
Roland: If it’s a year, two years, and it’s still around, people are still getting sick that way, then the mask is still going to stay on. But as of now, it’s going to become a normal to me. It’s like part of my outfit. Now, when I wake up, I’m like, “Alright, what kind of mask am I going to wear now?”
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This three-part series was produced by Olivia Marble, Marissa Garcia, Paige Barnes and Jing Feng; edited by Paige Barnes and Olivia Marble; recorded by Marissa Garcia and Olivia Marble; sound by Paige Barnes; managed by Mel Fronczek.