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A year after the pandemic forced Chris and Amy Hillyard to temporarily close their two San Francisco Bay Area cafes, the news is suddenly good.
Covid-19 infections have dropped sharply. The Hillyards and most of the staff at Farley's East and Farley's SF have been vaccinated. The business got a second round of federal government aid, bigger than the first.
But for all that, the long-term outlook still isn't clear, and that's particularly so for the flagship location, tucked among tall and still-empty office buildings in downtown Oakland.
Reuters has been following the Hillyards and Farley's since March 2020, when they laid off https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-eateries/for-u-s-small-restaurants-coronavirus-impact-is-swift-and-brutal-idUSKBN2161GC their entire staff, chronicling their reopening https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-smallbusiness/a-california-cafe-reopens-with-a-payroll-loan-but-the-future-unclear-idUSKBN22U16B six weeks later with a $225,000 paycheck protection program loan, their summer https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-usa-smallbusiness/egg-salad-and-a-basketball-star-provide-one-california-cafes-coronavirus-lifeline-idUSKBN2431IL with help from donors like Golden State Warrior point guard Steph Curry, and hardship during the winter https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-economy-small-business-restaurant-idUKKBN29411Y viral surge.
But last month, as coronavirus cases fell and California loosened more restrictions, Farley's got a second $300,000 federal grant. That's enough to cover payroll and help fund other parts of the operation for six months, Chris Hillyard says.
But "it doesn't provide long-term resolution into the problem of not having enough business," he said. "Is this just drawing it out? Or is it getting us through?"
Those are questions that policymakers had hoped not to be hearing a year into the pandemic. The earliest rounds of aid last spring were premised on the idea that Americans would be able to return to pre-pandemic activities in a few months, without permanent changes to commerce and consumer behavior.
A year later, it's clear that has not been the case, even though a growing body of indicators points to an economy that is starting to emerge from the crisis.
Employment rose by the most in four months in February, and consumers appear to be gearing up for a spending spree, with Federal Reserve data showing credit card balances at U.S. banks rising in each of the last five weeks, a first since the pandemic struck.
People are resuming activities largely shunned for the last year. More than 1.5 million travelers passed through airport security checks on Sunday, the most since the national state of emergency declaration last March, government data showed.
In-person dining has been clawing its way back, with the number of diners at restaurants open for business at 90% versus 2019, according to national data form OpenTable. While many places remain shuttered or under capacity constraints, states like Florida and Texas that have more liberal policies are seeing numbers swell to 100%.