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How Local Businesses Are Adapting To 'New Normal'

Scott Lair

St. Patrick's Day is usually a popular day for bars to make money. And that's what Scott Lair, who owns the Great Untamed bar in Laramie, was expecting this year. But it was also around the time COVID-19 started hitting Wyoming.

"It was basically in the space of one week," Lair said, "when things kind of started happening. There was like, nobody out downtown. Which is very unusual in Laramie. And that whole week was pretty slow for me. And I decided to switch to take out only. And then the next day, I decided to switch to delivery and pickups by appointments. So it all happened really fast."

One week later, Gov. Mark Gordon issued a shutdown. And Lair had to make more changes.

"It was a pretty difficult decision just 'cause the bars… they're a really good community there. And making that switch means you can't hang out at the bar anymore. So that really sucks," Lair said. "But, it became pretty clear that that was the safer decision to make. As far as logistically, it was pretty simple to switch over as far as operations. I had most of the stuff in place already, like an online store."

Since then, Wyoming has gradually lifted restrictions. But Lair is still hesitant. He said the reason he hasn't reopened completely is because of the way his business is set up.

"I can continue doing delivery and pickups or I can open up and do sit down service, I can't do both," he explained.

Lair's bar is a small space, so he said it's probably for both his business and his customers not be having to sit down service.

"The research done in reopening includes like, everybody has to be seated at separate tables, six feet apart, no sitting at the bar, and all that. I mean I could pull it off but I'm just not sure that anybody would be interested in coming in to drink," he said.

But for Jill Hunter, owner of Mulino Italian Bistro in Lander, re-opening her restaurant was crucial to her employees and business.

Credit Savannah Maher
Mulino Italian Bistro owner, Jill Hunter

"I put so much money into this restaurant and building it," Hunter said, "And the startup costs with food and wine and everything. My whole thing was all I needed to do is get to summer. I mean, we're in June and we're not even doing the numbers we were doing in… January, February. Which for Lander is off-season."

Hunter's Mulino Italian Bistro had only been open for about four months when COVID-19 hit her community. So Hunter decided to close her restaurant because it would help flatten the curve.

" To shut the doors was pretty devastating, to be honest. I took everything I've ever earned, everything I've saved for my retirement, including my sweat equity to demo and build to make this place happen, and then to not even get to summer was hard."

Because she had put her entire savings into creating the business, Hunter was determined to survive. She switched her services to take-outs, pickups, and deliveries only. But it wasn't the same because Mulino's is meant to be a fine-dining service. Take-outs and pickups just didn't do it justice.

Hunter said she got to a breaking point -- she only had so much money that she was either going to need to reopen or close down. The governor's decision to re-open at 50 percent on May 1 came just in time, Hunter said.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Wyoming is home to over 1,300 eating and drinking locations and its estimated sales are up to $1.1 billion. And that's why the Wyoming Business Council has offered grants to help businesses stay afloat.

Josh Dorrell, the CEO of the Wyoming Business Council, prioritized communication with business owners first.

"One of the things we did is a number of webinars to educate people on best practices, to educate business owners about what was closed, how to re-open safely, and things like that. They were really, only three different types of businesses that were closed down for a period of time and now they're all back open in a full or limited capacity," said Dorrell.

That included personal services like hair and nail salons, barbershops, and fitness centers. And the Business Council has helped with re-openings by doing a number of training and campaigns across the state and aiding the Paycheck Protection Program loans for business owners.

"And just recently, our main street program launched the 'shop smart, shop safe' campaign with local businesses on main streets to be able to really educate them, educate their customers, and work to help people feel more comfortable in those retail spaces. And help retail owners do what it takes to make their customers feel comfortable," he said.

The 'Shop Smart, Shop Safe' campaign is a statewide collaboration between the Business Council and the State Chamber of Commerce, Main Street, and the Economic Development Association. It consists of mostly educational resources and assistance focusing on business recovery for local business owners.

But their largest contribution is the business relief programs passed by the special session of the Wyoming State Legislature, to help the economy.

The business council, along with the legislature and the governor, formed a plan to take $325 million from the CARES Act funding and use it to help the business community. Dorrell said the plan is in one of the first phases, "which was intended to help the smallest business from zero to 50 employees. It gives them the opportunity for up to a $50,000 grant. And that's a $50 million dollar program. The application process has been simple for businesses."

At the same time, the business council is also trying to observe safety precautions since COVID-19 is still out there.

"Our goal is to help people with their livelihoods and make sure that their businesses are as resilient as possible. So I think that education leading up to this point has been good. Obviously, the funding that we're now able to now provide to businesses throughout the state."

Dorrell said he knows this won't fully revive businesses, "but to help them through that tough time and help them emerge on the other side is what we're really going for."

Businesses who are interested in applying for relief grants or want to learn more about the programs can visit the Business Council's website.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Naina Rao, at nbadarin@uwyo.edu.

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