COOLIDGE — Residents of Coolidge looking for an escape from the sheltered realities of the pandemic have had one reliable venue throughout the past few months. The Pita Patio Grill has continued to host live events — with social distancing precautions recommended — on a weekly basis, including a holiday market on Dec. 12.
For the vendors and visitors at the market, the pandemic took a back seat but was not forgotten.
Among the ornaments, jewelry and metalwork on display were custom mask holders with quips such as “Spread Kindness Not Germs” and “Baby It’s COVID Outside.”
Nathan Smith, the “San Tan Santa,” explained that the pandemic had created numerous difficulties for holiday-themed businesses.
“The whole social distancing thing has been tough for a small outfit like mine,” Smith said. “I’m not going to turn away a kid that wants to hug Santa because he or she doesn’t have a mask on. I’m not going to take that away from them.”
Smith said that his bookings were done two-thirds from previous years, despite precautions such as a clear face shield and frequent testing.
“I hope people are smart and make good choices, get vaccinated so we can get back to some kind of normalcy,” Smith said. “With this virus, some people are choosing to take safety measures, some people aren’t but it affects everybody.”
Families at the market said that the lack of activities in the area had affected them and their children during the holiday season.
“It’s hard for our kids,” said Coolidge resident Alvin Smalley. “They can’t go to school, they’re stuck at home. This market is a good idea just so they can go out and see people.”
Another family, Randi and James Villars, said their kids had struggled with at-home learning, and while they were lucky enough to have childcare through a family member, others didn’t have that luxury.
“Every situation is different,” James Villars said. “You’ve got to find a way that works for you and your situation.” Villars was nevertheless happy the market was going on and small businesses were being supported.
According to Jeff Kramer, co-owner of the Pita Patio Grill, the vendors were pleased and expressed hope that the market would become a more frequent event.
When Kramer and Nick Tsalikis opened Pita Patio Grill in November 2019, they envisioned it as the start of a major revitalization effort along Coolidge Avenue. Kramer wanted to see Coolidge become a center for live music, or bring more cafes or a brewery to the area to take advantage of the promise brought on by Nikola and other industries moving in.
That plan hasn’t disappeared, but the pandemic made the realities of business expansion in the city uncertain.
“People are not coming out like they used to,” Kramer said. “There’s places still shutting down or struggling to stay open that serve liquor and have entertainment. … It hurts everybody.”
Although city leaders in Coolidge have shied away from mandating COVID-19 related restrictions, Kramer said the state’s liquor board holds leverage over bars and restaurants by controlling alcohol sales and potentially suspending licenses for non-compliant businesses.
For the time being, Kramer said the restaurant was exploring grants to expand outdoor seating. They also own the building next-door to the patio, which Kramer hoped in the future could be home to a pizzeria or bakery. A coffee shop, Nana’s, opened up on the premises in November.
“People are tired of being shut in,” Kramer said. “It’s affecting their mood. All we want to do is provide entertainment and have people come out and have a good time.”