When Willow Belden goes holiday shopping she likes to support local businesses. This year, though, it's meant calling stores and asking, "Are you guys wearing masks? But are you really wearing masks? And, like, what else are you doing?"
Belden lives in Laramie, Wyoming, and masks were recently mandated in the county, but not every person, or business, complies. Sometimes she goes to find out for herself - sort of holiday window shopping for COVID-19 safety protocols.
"I look in and I see that the employees are not wearing masks, and I will literally turn around and leave, which is kind of awkward," she says.
And she posts on Facebook, asking if people are masking up at certain businesses. You've probably seen those posts from your own friends and family, maybe even written one yourself.
"I mean, it's been happening since the beginning of the pandemic," says Seth McGee. "People have been trying to figure out what businesses are doing - and what they're not doing."
McGee also lives in Laramie, and social media posts like Belden's gave him an idea. Wouldn't it be nice if there was one, centralized place where you go look and know this kind of stuff about businesses in Laramie? So McGee created a "COVID-19 Business Safety Measures" map of Laramie.
"Everything is overlaid on the existing Google Maps layout," he says. "So if you're familiar with that, that's what it looks like."
He added color-coordinated plot points for businesses that are following safety protocols. For example, a green plot point indicates that employees wear masks, while a purple one means customers must as well. And you can click on that business and read about other precautions, like offering curbside pickup.
McGee stresses that he doesn't want his map to shame businesses or be perceived as political.
"There's already issues, a divide, amongst people and their personal feelings about whether or not people want to wear masks or people should wear masks, or what the government should or shouldn't be doing," McGee says. "So that's why I wanted to have a resource for those people who are concerned to be able to access it and be like, 'OK, this is what I can be able to expect from these places.'"
The guide relies on businesses submitting the info themselves, so there is room for error, but McGee says he's received a lot of positive feedback.
Eric Krszjzaniek teaches in the business school at the University of Wyoming. We talk over Zoom, and I have him pull the map up and tell me his first impression of it.
"It demonstrates the ways in which consumers will take it upon themselves to create things that the marketplace is not providing for them," Krszjzaniek says. "That, to me, is the really cool and fascinating thing here."
Because there hasn't been a top-down approach to dealing with the pandemic, Krszjzaniek says that's left some consumers feeling anxious or uncertain about a lot of things, including entering businesses.
"This kind of alleviates some of that anxiety and gives more information and power to the consumer to make an educated choice, which is ultimately what consumers want," he says.
How exactly the map will be used and whether it can drum up business for the stores listed is hard to say.
It could reward safer businesses, or, as Krszjaniek says, "This may encourage some people that are against mass regulations to look at this list and decide which businesses they don't want to give their money to."
Krszjaniek and McGee say they haven't seen any similar guides in other places. In any case, McGee says anyone interested in creating a COVID-19 precautions shopping map in their community, he's happy to help.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.