Tim Yniguez wasn’t able to celebrate his 50th birthday last year because of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
So, when Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey rescinded the mask mandates across the state in late March, Mr. Yniguez wasn’t going to miss a chance to celebrate his second 50th birthday on April Fool’s Day.
“This is way better,” Mr. Yniguez said, after settling down for dinner and drinks at Brookside II Sports Bar and Grille, 15170 W. Bell Road. “I love it.”
These days masks are hard to find at Brookside II. That’s now becoming more of the norm across Surprise as life starts to get back to “normal” as more people get the coronavirus vaccine and cases continue to drop in Surprise.
That doesn’t exactly mean everybody is ready to join the party just yet.
About half (52%) of 207 respondents in a Surprise Independent snap poll on Nextdoor.com from March 31 to April 2 said the reopening across Surprise is happening way too soon.
“It’s just a little too fast,” said Billy Steele of Mountain Vista Ranch. “Go too quickly and we’ll invite back all the restrictions, pain and pressure.”
But another nearly half of respondents in the poll said the return to normalcy is happening at about the right time or should have already happened.
Elizabeth Drago of Bell West Ranch is one who said things didn’t return to normal fast enough.
”If you are concerned then wear a mask,” Ms. Drago said. “But don’t make everyone else wear one if we have gotten vaccinated. I got my shots and have antibodies.”
Diane Richards of Surprise Legacy Parc said she’s still finding it hard to get a vaccine appointment.
“Good for you if you are fully vaccinated, [but] a lot of us aren’t,” Ms. Richards said.
Wyatt Arthur of Surprise Legacy Parc called it “insane” that life is getting back to normal.
“Even with vaccines, the variants are morphing constantly,” Mr. Arthur said. “I read last night we will be hunting vaccines for decades. ... I will be wearing a mask forever.”
Surprise’s mayor, Skip Hall, who dealt with his own case of COVID-19 last summer, is pleased things are getting to how they were before the pandemic.
“I don’t think it’s too soon, but that’s just me,” Mr. Hall said. “I think a year of having curtailing activities is enough.”
Mr. Hall said in the week after Mr. Ducey’s order he already noticed Surprise coming to life, especially at night.
“I’ve been going out a lot lately,” Mr. Hall said. “You’d think I was a barfly lately. People are just enjoying themselves.”
For instance, at The Chicken Ranch, 14051 W. Grand Ave., Mr. Hall said he observed a packed crowd of “people just boogieing.”
It’s a far cry from a year ago when Surprise shut down like many other places across the country.
The city government, itself, had its own list of uncertainties, just as Surprise businesses were going through them.
For starters, Surprise’s budget became uncertain going into fiscal year 2021 as city officials had no idea how the tax base would be affected by business shutdowns.
Instead, a record 2,500 home permits, plus better-than-expected tax revenues and more than $16 million in funding from the C.A.R.E.S. Act, helped Surprise pull out OK.
“We really are pleasantly pleased,” Mr. Hall said. “Our retail sales really held up. Our auto sales held up. Restaurant sales are doing well. The only thing that’s down is hotels and motels.
“We thought it was a cliff we were going to go off.”
Many individual businesses weren’t as lucky as the city itself.
Brookside was one of them after suffering six-figure losses for a nearly five-month closure midway through 2020.
“It’s a shame because when they closed us down at the end of June we were having our best month despite COVID,” said Gary Erwin, owner of Brookside. “It was a really rough year. We were operating a nonprofit facility to say the least.”
To keep his place relevant, Mr. Erwin said he focused on branding and tried to keep customers’ interest during the down time. It’s starting to pay off now that people are getting out again.
“Somewhere around February we started to see a bigger lift,” Mr. Erwin said. “When Gov. Ducey removed the guidelines, it was like turning a faucet on. It’s overwhelming to say the least — for us anyway.”
Mr. Erwin made the controversial decision to some by making face masks a personal choice in his establishment.
“It doesn’t mean I’m right wrong or indifferent,” he said. “That’s my personal belief.”
But with few exceptions, the masks have completely come off there.
“I think people have just reached the end of the rope with the limitations, all the strict guidelines,” Mr. Erwin said. “Now to watch them dance, to watch them socialize, to watch people talk to people, you can see the smiles on their faces.”
By a strange twist of fate, Mr. Erwin said the pandemic ultimately helped his business in the long run. Despite needing by his estimation “three or four years to fully recover from this,” he said his business learned valuable lessons on survival.
“Personally for me, I’ve come out of this stronger,” he said. “We have a better businesses model and a better customer base.
“You could sit and stew about it and be angry or sit and try to figure out how it will make us go forward. It’s helped us grow.”
Live music appears to be the start of Surprise’s resurgence post-COVID, as several establishments have reinstituted live music and have packed schedules throughout April and beyond.
Brookside now has it four times a week with a temporary stage on the dancefloor.
I & J Fountain Restaurant, 12221 W. Bell Road, has brought back live music at least three nights a week. Booty’s Wings Burgers and Beer, 15557 W. Bell Road, features live acts twice a week, and Richi’s Diner, 15609 W. Bell Road, has a musician playing on Thursday evenings.
Plus, there’s always the Irish Wolfhound, 16811 N. Litchfield Road, which is known for having some of the best and most music acts in Surprise throughout the week.
Theater fans now have an outlet again with the recent return of Stage Left Productions, 11340 W. Bell Road. The theater group has advanced from one-person plays during the deep throes of the pandemic to full productions now at their eastside theater.
The Vista, 15660 N. Parkview Place, returned to events in February, highlighted by comedian Bill Engvall.
The now-professional venue on the Valley Vista High School campus has nine shows booked already for the rest of 2021. They include The Drifters (two shows, April 25), comedian Jim Breuer (May 15) and Shine on Floyd, a Pink Floyd tribute band (June 11).
Social distancing is still part of the procedure for The Vista, as only half of the tickets are being sold. Of course, that could always change with conditions improving.
For sports fans, OUAZ is getting back in the game with fan attendance. The university has been allowing fans back into home games for more than a month.
Previously, Spirit home games were off limits to opposing team fans, but a few hundred fans were able to attend the first two OUAZ home football games for tis shortened spring season.
The school is hoping to have full attendance when sports go back to their normal seasons in the fall.
Health experts across the country are worried fast reopenings like in Surprise could bring another surge in cases.
But Mo Rich of Mountain Vista Ranch summed up those chances this way.
“Time will tell,” he said.
Jason Stone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.