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Don't draw a crowd: Reopening Bozeman expected to take time, patience

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Sitting elbow-to-elbow, sipping a beer and listening to live music is a signature part of the Haufbrau House experience.

The iconic Bozeman bar fills easily on a normal Saturday night. People file in to hear local musicians, have a burger or just hang out. But that kind of carefree experience is not an option during a pandemic.

The Haufbrau is preparing to reopen this Monday after only being able to sell burgers and drinks for takeout the last seven weeks. When people can once again congregate inside, there will be no sitting at the bar, no more than six people at a table seated at least 6 feet from the next table and no live music for the foreseeable future.

“This is the first time you’ll ever hear a business owner say they don’t want to draw a crowd,” said Don Frye, the owner.

Frye and his family also own the The Filling Station off of Rouse Avenue. The venue, substantially larger than the Haufbrau, is also known for its live shows, although it also has a bar and restaurant. The Filling Station will open Monday, too, but Frye said there won’t be any live music there either.

The bars may even implement a reservation system.

Businesses all around town look different now than before they were closed by public health officials beginning March 17. Gov. Steve Bullock released a three-phase plan last week that outlines what a restricted opening looks like, saying Montana is ready after flattening the curve of new cases. The Gallatin City-County Board of Health voted to follow suit.

Economic pressure to reopen has been building. More than 96,200 Montanans have filed for unemployment just in the last six weeks. A recent economic report from the University of Montana outlines how bad things could get. The Bureau of Business and Economic Research analysis predicts that more than 50,000 jobs around Montana will be lost by the end of 2020 and that personal income in the state will be $3.9 billion less than what was projected in December.

Reopening began this week, and business owners, employees and customers have been affected by the change. Others are left out until phase two.

Tough Decisions

Although retail businesses were allowed to reopen this week, with bars and restaurants reopening next week, not all are taking the opportunity to do so. The Downtown Bozeman Partnership has compiled a list of open and closed businesses on its website.

Places like the Bozeman Running Co., Dee-O-Gee and Montana Gift Corral have opened their doors having to follow social-distancing and strict sanitation requirements. Some businesses in town are open to customers by appointment only. Others have decided to remain closed.

Country Bookshelf, Cactus Records, Hattie Rex, Sage Spa and others have held off on reopening, even though the governor’s directive would allow it. Many businesses that choose to stay closed will still offer shopping online.

Going into a reopened business is also a personal decision. Bullock’s plan advises that people who are especially vulnerable to contracting the novel coronavirus, like people older than 65 or those with pre-existing conditions, should still stay at home through phase two.

Advice is conflicting for vulnerable employees.

Phase one of the governor’s plan advises that people who live with vulnerable residents should be aware that going back to work or places where social distancing isn’t feasible means they could carry the virus home with them. The plan advises vulnerable people should be isolated from potential carriers.

Employers are asked to make special accommodations for vulnerable employees and those in their household. Telework should continue to be encouraged whenever possible.

Brenda Nordlund, acting commissioner of the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, said employees and employers should have conversations about their needs as they come back to work. She said employees should familiarize themselves with Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and refer to the department’s website if they have questions.

“Employers and businesses are doing everything they can to ensure employees are safe,” Nordlund said.

Traditional state unemployment insurance benefits are cancelled if an employee is called back to work, which could complicate a decision for a vulnerable person who is advised to stay home. According to the Department of Labor and Industry website, a person can continue to receive unemployment benefits if an employer fails to make reasonable accommodations and follow safety guidelines outlined by the state reopening plan.

Employees are advised to contact their local health department if they believe an employer is not following safety guidelines.

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act does provide for the new Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which includes unemployment insurance for independent contractors and those who are self-employed. It also includes benefits for people who would be available to work but can’t due to the pandemic, like some vulnerable people.

Eligibility for the federal assistance program may require documentation like a doctor’s note.

Frye and his brother Bill have been the only two working at the Haufbrau since it closed its dine-in service, although they’ve had a steady stream of takeout orders. Frye said staff were furloughed because he didn’t want to ask them to take the risk of being at work. But now, he said, employees are looking forward to coming back.

Frye said making the decision to reopen and bring employees back was tough.

“I do a lot of waffling. I get excited about reopening and then I talk myself into waiting a few more weeks until things are more certain,” Frye said.

But ultimately, the Haufbrau is meant to be a place for people to gather and connect, and Frye said he wanted to fulfill that need.

Modified operations

Frye and his brother have been working with the health department to figure out the best way to reopen and spoke with their employees over Zoom on Thursday. He said he’ll be taking a required online course through the department to learn new sanitation guidelines.

The department’s website provides self-monitoring guidelines, a universal plan for sanitization and printable posters with messages like telling people to stay home if they feel sick.

The department has also been offering webinars tailored to specific businesses and sanitarians are answering phone calls seven days a week.

Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, said the new regulations that come with reopening are not that different from having businesses comply with normal health codes. He said the department hasn’t encountered a business unwilling or unable to comply.

“Business owners want to do the right thing. But this is complicated and unprecedented,” Kelley said.

If a business, employee or customer refuses to comply with safety guidelines, the county can charge someone with a misdemeanor that carries a fine of up to $500.

Kelley said he doesn’t expect to have any issues with compliance and that businesses will mostly deal with health department sanitarians. However, law enforcement may get involved. For example, if a bar doesn’t close by 11:30 p.m. as required, an officer may respond.

Kelley said at a board of health meeting last week that he was particularly concerned about bars reopening because they’re open later and involve people drinking alcohol. Frye said he was concerned about how to regulate customers’ behavior. It’s just something staff will have to figure out as they go along, Frye said.

Missoula County officials decided last week to enact additional restrictions requiring some businesses to stay closed longer than what Bullock’s plan dictates. The Missoulian reported that Ellen Leahy, health officer for Missoula County, said that the local approach needed more gradual gradual steps and that the county’s testing capacity isn’t where it needs to be yet.

Included in Missoula County’s restrictions is the continued closure of grooming, beauty, body art, spa and massage businesses. Personal care businesses have been allowed to reopen in Gallatin County, which has seen more cases of COVID-19 than any other county.

Kelley recommended the board of health stay in line with the governor’s plan for reopening. He said in an interview this week that the health department considered additional, local restrictions, and said that what Missoula County did was reasonable. Ultimately though, Kelley, the department and the board decided Gallatin County could safely keep with the state’s timeline.

“There’s no established playbook for this,” Kelley said.

As counties make their own decisions about what’s safe, so do businesses.

Katie Wing, owner of the Loft Spa downtown Bozeman, has established further sanitary requirements for her business that go beyond what the health department recommends.

Staff spent all day last Sunday training for their first day back. New protocols include having clients place their shoes and personal belongings in a plastic or reusable bag before entering the salon and spa, washing their hands as soon as they enter and showering before a full-body treatment, like a massage. All staff are wearing face masks, keeping one pair of shoes on site solely for work and working staggered hours between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. to keep capacity down.

“We’re taking it very seriously. It’s a big responsibility,” Wing said.

Signs all over The Loft give examples what 6 feet looks like — the length of a mountain bike or a tent. All workstations are 6 feet apart and a couch has been replaced with two chairs to keep with social distancing. When a customer pays with a credit card, they’ll be asked to hold the card up for staff to read so it doesn’t exchange hands.

Wing said the transition to the new protocols has gone well, and that although they are new protocols, it’s normal for the salon and spa to operate with high sanitary standards. She said she understands that the timeline to reopen might look different for other businesses, and that she’s hopeful businesses don’t open if they aren’t fully prepared.

“The more we can do this right, the less chance we have to close again,” Wing said.

Kelley said officials will watch positive case numbers per day, the number of tests that are done and the number of hospitalizations, among other factors, as indications of whether Gallatin County is ready to move forward or if it needs to revert back.

Kelley said they can’t make decisions based upon a set number and have to look at the whole picture. He said virus cases are likely to rise again and that the virus is still dangerous, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the county will take action.

“We aren’t able to say x number of cases equals y,” Kelley said.

In any case, that trigger forward can’t some soon enough for some.

A waiting game

Gyms, pools, theaters, bowling alleys and similar places aren’t able to reopen until phase two of Bullock’s plan, and there is no timeline for when it will begin. Bullock said last week it could take a “long time.”

Andrea Stevenson, CEO of the Gallatin Valley YMCA, said it’s hard to know what the prolonged closure means for the nonprofit because it’s unknown how long it will last. She said the financial ramifications could be significant and that it’s “devastating” for members of the YMCA.

“We are not just a swim and gym, we’re a community organization,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said she was surprised that gyms were left out of phase one in Montana. President Donald Trump’s federal reopening plan has gyms opening in phase one and bars opening in phase two.

“We were also surprised because the physical and mental health that comes from exercise is so important right now during this crisis,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said the YMCA would have been ready to reopen this week if allowed. She said staff have deep cleaned the facility, arranged all equipment 6 feet apart and are creating a reservation system for members to sign up for spots before visiting the gym, among other modifications.

As the closure persists, Stevenson said more people are canceling or freezing their memberships. She said it will be difficult to pencil out finances when the YMCA does open, because fewer members will be able to use the space, but overhead costs will remain the same.

“How do you operate a business at half revenue but full cost?” Stevenson said.

The YMCA will run into the same problem as staff get their kids’ summer programs up and running. Phase one allows for youth camps and activities to begin at a limited capacity. Stevenson said the YMCA will run the programs, but that they likely won’t make enough revenue to cover their expenses.

“We’ll figure out a way because somebody has to do it,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said she is encouraged by the creative solutions that staff have come up with to deal with fallout from the pandemic, that some members are still paying dues just to help out and that new partnerships have formed as a result.

Stevenson said the restrictions, closures and modified operations are hard not only on businesses, but patrons, too. She said it takes patience to adjust.

“I hope that our community and members understand that we have to abide by these guidelines to continue to operate and to be safe,” Stevenson said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.