Flint, MI—Looking around the main dining room of Luigi’s Restaurant on Tuesday, June 22–the day Michigan returned to full capacity and lifted its mask and social distancing requirements–the COVID-19 pandemic seemed a distant memory.

Booths lining the room’s perimeter were filled with guests eating meatball sandwiches and slices of margherita pizza. With the exception of one waitress, no one was wearing a mask. The tables at the center of the room were scattered with half-finished Bud Lights, their buyers too busy greeting each other at the taco station to drink them. 

Tom Beaubien, co-owner of Luigi’s, was all smiles. But the prior afternoon he was apprehensive about what the capacity and mask mandate changes might mean for his business. Though he’d had a long battle with COVID-19 himself, it wasn’t the illness that concerned him. Instead, he said, “It’s just hard to tell what human nature is going to do.” Beaubien said in his experience, no one had wanted to wear a mask. “But now all of a sudden, the prospect of not wearing a mask and being exposed to people and not having any restrictions? It’s like a light switch.”

He said there wasn’t really a transition period. “It seems kind of awkward,” he said.

But surveying his lunchtime crowd, the atmosphere felt anything but awkward. People were hugging and taking photos together, the lower portions of their faces on full display. Rob Teare, 70, a Luigi’s regular, said he’s happy the mask mandate has been lifted. “It’s just nice to get back to normal,” he said.

Teare is vaccinated and said he feels safe being indoors and unmasked, but he thinks it might be a little longer before he gets used to the change. “Whenever I go to the bank or the store I’ll still put my mask on. I guess it’s a reflex,” he said, chuckling.

Teare’s son, Jeff, sat alongside him at the bar. The younger Teare said he’s glad to return to a “sense of normalcy” as well. However, he also isn’t fully done with practicing Covid precautions. “I still sanitize my hands after everything I do,” he said.

At Sal’s Gym, owners Jake and Ashleigh Saldaña said they believe some of their Covid-era developments will also stick around even though masks and capacity restrictions are gone.

“I still want to see people outside,” Ashleigh Saldaña said. The couple had built a concrete patio in the front of the building, which backs up to Chevy Commons, to allow for safe workouts during the pandemic. The Saldañas and their gym members enjoyed the outdoor option so much they now plan to build a deck on the side of the gym and add an awning to the patio to make it usable year-round.

Jake Saldaña said the pair had already started letting vaccinated members remove their masks at their workout stations, but they’ll continue to allow members to make their own call on wearing a mask.

“We want everyone to feel comfortable,” he said, holding one of the couple’s 4-month old twins on his lap. “If they want to wear a mask, wear a mask. It’s such a small circle and community.” The pair said they trust their members after witnessing how considerate everyone was toward each other during the height of the pandemic.

While diners and gym-goers were happy to shed their masks, guests at the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA) didn’t immediately do the same.

“I’d say about half and half are still wearing their masks,” executive director John Henry said of the museum’s morning guests June 22. “I think a lot of people just have decided that it doesn’t hurt to don a mask in public places. Maybe they just feel more comfortable with it.”

Henry said the FIA had been planning to relax its regulations around mandatory masks and temperature checks on July 1. “But,” he said, “the governor kind of jumped ahead of us.”

Henry noted the museum had updated its air filtration system over the pandemic and has space in its galleries for people to continue social distancing if they wish. “We’re still cleaning and making sure surfaces are safe for everybody,” he said. “Because we’re a public institution, and because we’re responsible for the public safety, we’re looking at an abundance of caution.”

Back at Luigi’s, the room looked full as Kirk Laue, the restaurant’s other owner, greeted patrons, picked up checks, and cleaned off counters. Beaubien said the pair only put tables out for about 75-80% of the space’s normal capacity—but that didn’t have anything to do with preventing the spread of a virus.

“The reason I didn’t put 100% was because I don’t have the staffing to facilitate going full,” Beaubien said. The pair are currently short-staffed in the kitchen as well as in the dining room. He said they normally have about 32 employees, but right now they have about 26. “I don’t have enough servers to necessarily maintain taking care of 100% of the crowd, seven days a week.”

Bartender Kim Saunders-Ackley said she was wary of the newly large crowd the bar had during the lunch shift, before she came into work. She said she would have had a mask on if she’d been working then, when about 75 people were seated in the main dining area at its busiest.

Saunders-Ackley has worked at Luigi’s for over 30 years. “Longer than the owners!” she said. She has a pre-existing condition that kept her home and extremely cautious throughout the pandemic. Even though she’s fully vaccinated, she said she’s still working on her anxiety level in bigger crowds.

Server Kym Cardoza said she’d gotten vaccinated more for her grandchildren than herself, but that she was glad to be back to taking care of dine-in guests either way. “It’s just so nice to be able to see people smile again,” she said.

Both Beaubien and Laue have been stepping in to support the business while they look to hire more help. It’s meant long days for both of the owners, but as Beaubien scanned his buzzing dining room, you wouldn’t know it from his grin.

“This is the most people I’ve seen without a mask,” he said.

He admits it still makes him a bit anxious. “But I just fed all of them,” he said, and laughed as he wiped flour dust from his hands.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....

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