With Statewide Restrictions Lifted, Restaurants Are Deciding Whether To Impose Their Own Rules
In mid-March, 2020, the governor issued public health orders requiring all food establishments to close to the public and only offer food for take out or delivery. These restrictions stayed in place until early January when, slowly, they started to be lifted.
Almost exactly a year later, all public health orders for restaurants have been lifted and businesses can return to their pre-pandemic operations if they so choose. The statewide mask mandate is also lifted at this time. It's been met with a mixed response from both the public and business owners.
Watching The Numbers
For instance, both locations of Coal Creek Coffee and Coal Creek Tap in Laramie are operating at around 60 percent of capacity, and they're still requiring masks on employees and customers. If a customer doesn't want to wear a mask, the coffee shop is still offering curbside service. According to John Guerin, who co-owns the business, most people have been amenable to the requirements, but they have seen some conflicts still.
"I was just over collecting deposits and whatnot from last night, and my bartenders from the brewery were telling me they got verbally assaulted last night by a person who just has had it, you know. hey were yelling at him, in front of 15 customers, and he's just standing there, bug-eyed," said Guerin. "And I hear those stories, weekly anyway, not every day, but for sure, it's happening all the time. And I get it. I know, I'm sick of it too. But I don't know, I wish people would practice a little more self-control."
He would have liked the state mask mandate to last a little bit longer.
"I think it's too soon to have lifted that. I think it's problematic because it puts the burden back onto the businesses if you want to play it safe, which I would just really strongly feel we should still," said Guerin. "We're at something like 20 percent vaccinated in our county and we get so many people from out of town and out of state."
The Coal Creek businesses returned to half capacity when health orders allowed them to in January and when restrictions on capacity were lifted later, added a few more tables. They had to to try to make up for the drastic losses they saw at the beginning of the pandemic.
"I've been working in Coal Creek for, this is my 26th year. And I thought, we just lost everything," said Guerin. "I mean, the numbers were so bad. They weren't 50 percent, they were 20 percent. And my staff went from, well, it dropped by 60 percent, [from] people quitting."
Business improved over the summer, in part because the city created an open container zone in certain areas of downtown, a change Guerin would like to see made permanent. Coal Creek's business has been steadily improving, but they're still slow. Guerin and his team plan to monitor state and national infection and vaccination rates to determine when to safely make any more changes to their restrictions. With the university and I-80 running through town, out-of-state visitors are not unusual, and he feels that's important to keep that in mind.
"When I'm in any of the businesses, we're all masked up. And we're going to be, I think, until we see some kind of a trend nationally that makes it sound like 'Okay, we're probably to the point where as many people that are going to get vaccinated have gotten vaccinated, and it's time.' I get asked about it all the time. 'When are you going to do that?' It's like, 'I don't know. Not yet.' And I think we'll know when we know, as a nation, probably as a planet," said Guerin.
Come As You Are
But other places decided to return to normal as soon as state and local mandates were lifted. Like Jeffery's Bistro, also in Laramie. In May of last year, Chrissy Mathews became a co-owner of the business. She said that timeline messed with their ability to get PPP loans, so when they were only offering take-out, it was just her and the other two owners working.
"So it was quite an adjustment, that's for sure, going from a full restaurant to not having anybody in there. It was kind of sad for a little while because in the restaurant business, we're used to having our tables full and people in the restaurant and the hustle and bustle," said Mathews. "So it was quite an interesting transition for us but it was nice because it actually gave us the opportunity to kind of come face to face with a lot of our clientele and our customers because it was just the three of us owners being there and talking to everybody who's coming to pick up their food and we were actually able to build a relationship with some of our customers, which was really nice."
As business picked up, they brought employees back and proceeded with reopening and lifting restrictions as health orders allowed.
"We've just been following the process as long as the mandates go. As owners, we kind of sat down and talked to each other, and we said, 'You know what, we are going to follow what the state or the county says.' And so when the county said we could do this, we started doing this. And when the county said we could do this... you know, so we really just followed along with what was required for us," said Mathews.
They're seating customers at full capacity and don't require masks on staff or customers anymore, though they do have some available for customers who want one and may have forgotten theirs.
A big reason the owners of Jefferey's felt they needed to reopen is that their food is better suited for in-person dining than take out.
"As far as our guests go, really, they haven't voiced much concern about lifting a mask mandate or even happiness that we've lifted it. It's just more or less, I think everybody's kind of come to terms with the fact that we're going to do what we have to do, and they're going to do what they have to do," said Matthews.
Jeffery's does still offer food to-go to accommodate patrons who aren't comfortable with their policies, and Mathews says that part of the business has been doing better than it was pre-pandemic.
Feeling The Strain
Other businesses are fully reopened after experiencing an incredibly difficult year. The Crowbar and Grill in Laramie had to close for about six weeks over the winter because they just weren't making enough money to justify being open. They were fortunate in that they could time the closure with their regular slow time.
"Some of those months in the summer, we were pretty close, if not just a little above breaking even. And then the hardest months were like, October, November, when things really started spiking, and everything dropped really, really fast," said owner Andy Glines. "Which was kind of when we were starting to think about are we going to close and try and get through the winter? And just try and get to like, spring, summer, when things might look normal again?"
They relied heavily on PPP money and other government assistance to keep going.
"That money essentially just was a Bandaid on a wound that won't heal. So each round that we got would hold us over for a while and then whenever the next round was coming out, whether it was state funding or whatever it was, we pretty much needed that urgently before we were out of money," said Glines. "So they kind of came staggered to give us enough to get through the next three or four months until the next round came up."
Crowbar is back to seating at full capacity and at the bar. They fully reopened as soon as they were able, but still require masks on patrons and staff.
"For the most part, when we were told that there weren't going to be any restrictions anymore, that was only a week or so outside of all of my staff being able to get vaccines, and they weren't going to have full immunity for another six weeks at least," he said. "So we just kind of felt it was too soon to open everything up, but we still needed to be competitive and make sales to stay open."
Delivery helped carry the business during the pandemic but was phased out with reopening due to space issues, and their hours are still reduced. According to Glines that's partially because of staffing issues and partially because they're afraid a later-night crowd will be less amenable to wearing their masks. As it is, he said there haven't really been any issues with mask wearing.
"People are just excited to sit at the bar again, and most people will still just wear their mask and pull it down and take a drink and still sit there and have a conversation with their friend. They're just kind of really excited to sit back there again. Any pushback that we've had has is been minimal and it wasn't anything new through the whole year," said Glines. "So if they don't want to wear masks, we just tell them the places that they would feel more comfortable at and then they go there."
Taking A Stand
Some restaurants in the state took a hard stance against some health orders and found that they were rewarded for it. Like James Andrews, owner of the Red Zone Sports Bar and Grill in Powell. He gained statewide attention when he refused to follow health orders and close his business at 10 PM. He was issued a warning from local police officers, but no further actions were taken.
"I think they're kind of in a tough spot. You've got business owners that are trying to make a living, you've got people that are living in fear, either rightfully so or not. You've got mass media that's trying to make people live in fear. You've got government entities trying to grab up power, you got other government entities that are doing whatever they can just to make it through," said Andrews. "It's just a big pile of chaos. And I think you just kind of scratch your head and try to see what's going to happen tomorrow. I still have people come in every day and thank me for standing my ground and standing up for our first amendment rights. So that's kind of nice."
The business followed all other health orders when they were in place, but according to Andrews, if he had followed the curfew, he wouldn't have made enough money to stay afloat.
"Because I'm going to lose a third of my employees. After 10:00 p.m. is when we make our money, that's when they make their money, so they're going to go somewhere else and make money," he said.
The sports bar doesn't have any restrictions in place since health orders and the mask mandate were lifted.
"All my employees have already had COVID, so they're not going to be contributing to the spread," said Andrews. "Most all of my customers are older customers, and they've already had the vaccine or they've had COVID, so it's a little redundant at this point."
As it was, Andrews lost a lot of his employees when the business tried to move to take out only. The revenue didn't even pay for the software they purchased, so the business had to close for several weeks, and many employees found jobs elsewhere. It costs a lot of time and money to find and train new employees.
"Normally, I go through 11 or 12 employees a year. I went through 42 employees last year because everybody was making more money on COVID unemployment," said Andrews. "And the only employees I could get were people who didn't qualify for unemployment for the last two years."
A lot of places in the foodservice industry lost employees and many are struggling to find new ones, especially in Laramie, where many are college students. With courses being taught online, a lot of students attended from home to save money. And while vaccines are available to everyone in the state over the age of 16, many are still hesitant to fully return to normal and to public-facing jobs.
Employers are hesitant too. At the beginning of the pandemic, they weren't expecting to be closed to the public for as long as they were. Many had to lay off employees or had employees leave and they don't want to experience that again.
"We're still looking. Now we're feeling more comfortable, but at the same time, we didn't want to jump the gun too early, hire people back and then be like, 'wait, no, they're either shutting us down again, or we don't have the time or even the business to give you these hours.' So we really took our time," said Jeffrey's Bistro owner Mathews. "It's heartbreaking to have to lay people off and not know when we'd be able to have them back. So we really didn't want to go through that again."
A common thread among businesses though has been an appreciation for their customers who have stuck through this difficult year with them.
"I know that everybody really came together a lot to make sure that the businesses in town that are locally owned and small businesses really were able to pull through and we were so lucky for our customer and clientele base," said Mathews.
It's been a year of just taking it one day at a time and many restaurant owners don't know how much longer that attitude will have to last.