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Stories, Stats, Impacts: Wyoming Public Media is here to keep you current on the news surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

When Employees Catch COVID, Business Owners Have To Make Tough Decisions

Jeff Victor
Server Emily Madden, pouring a few beers at Laramie's Crowbar & Grill.

Wyoming, like many states, has tried to strike a balance between letting businesses operate and slowing the spread of COVID-19. But businesses are struggling to keep their doors open amid a rapid rise in coronavirus cases.

The Crowbar and Grill in downtown Laramie had to radically alter its operations when COVID-19 hit Wyoming in March.

Health orders from the state forced it and other businesses to halt in-person dining. When they were allowed to re-open, new health recommendations meant a closed bar and socially distanced tables.

"We worked really, really hard to follow all of the guidelines," said Emily Madden, a general manager at Crowbar. "Dining-in at restaurants has an inherent risk for both customers and employees. Employees are in that building all day long while customers come in and take their masks off to eat. So, it's really important to us to make sure everyone stays as safe as possible."

But one can never be 100 percent safe.

As the coronavirus continues to surge across Wyoming, several businesses throughout the state have chosen to close down - for days or weeks - after an employee tested positive.

At Crowbar, that happened earlier this month. But it didn't come as a shock to Madden.

"Watching the numbers in Albany County increase daily, we knew it was just a matter of time before we had a positive case at work," she said. "Statistically, it was going to happen. It was a matter of when and not if."

The restaurant shut down for five days as other employees waited for the results of their own COVID tests.

It's a familiar story playing out in communities across Wyoming. In Cody, things initially looked good for Sunlight Sports.

"We're an outdoor store and a lot of people went out camping this summer," said Co-owner Wes Allen. "So we were fortunate to be busy since we re-opened in May."

But then the store had to close for a few days after one employee was presumed positive.

Allen said staying closed for several days isn't easy for a local business.

"There's definitely an impact," he said. "The amount of business that we lost in the days we were closed would have more than paid for our month's rent, and we have staff that lose income."

With the virus spreading so rapidly and winter in the headlights, there's no guarantee it won't happen again.

"The impact was minimal this time," Allen aaid. "We were being very careful so that we didn't have an outbreak on staff that would shut us down for two weeks - which would have a devastating impact on the business this time of year."

Less than a block from Sunlight, Cody's Irma Hotel and Restaurant experienced its own business-halting brush with COVID-19.

Mike Darby co-owns the Irma with his brother. He said the restaurant had to shut down after two employees tested positive.

"Trying to do the prudent thing, we arranged for testing for anybody in the building," Darby said. "We had 27 tests and we had seven positives come back."

Finding so many positives, Darby said the rest of the staff was tested and this second round turned up even more cases.

"Prior to the second testing, as soon as the positives started coming in, we closed our business," he said. "Just thought it was the wise thing to do for public safety and for the safety of our employees."

The restaurant stayed closed for more than a week, and Darby said the Irma paid its employees through the time they couldn't work. That's a significant financial hit right at the end of tourist season.

But Darby said the truly scary thing about finding so many positives is that almost no one got seriously sick. The majority of those positive cases ended up being asymptomatic.

"There's so many asymptomatic people walking the streets and they have no reason to think they're sick," he said. "Most of them don't even realize they're infected so they're going to go talk to people who become infected and on it goes."

Both Darby and Allen said the Park County Public Health Department was helpful and communicative throughout their ordeals.

That's not the case in Albany County, where Madden and others wish there was more guidance coming from public health officials.

"There's no template for what we're supposed to be doing if somebody does test positive," Madden said. "There's no guidance from the state. There's no financial support for businesses that have to close down."

That puts retail and restaurant businesses in a tight spot when an employee tests positive. Making the decision to close, and keep employees safe, means turning away customers, at a time when customers are harder to come by and harder to accommodate.

Crowbar management made what it considers to be the ethical choice to close. As the coronavirus surges - especially in Laramie - Madden said she worries about the next time someone gets sick.

"It's inevitable that it happens again," she said. "We financially cannot close down every single time it happens. The business won't survive if we have to close down constantly."

Madden said government action and communication could make those hard decisions easier and better informed. It could also level the playing field between businesses acting responsibly, and those currently acting more recklessly.

"Why do we work so hard to do the right thing when there's other businesses in this city that haven't followed the rules at all, have had multiple positive cases, have had no one telling them they have to close down?" Madden said. "Why would anybody try at that point?"

Crowbar is now open again and Madden is hoping it can stay that way.

Jeff is a part-time reporter for Wyoming Public Media, as well as the owner and editor of the Laramie Reporter, a free online news source providing in-depth and investigative coverage of local events and trends.
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