What is the new normal? Routt County residents, businesses ponder life without masks
Taylor Osborne cried for 10 minutes straight when she heard the news — no more masks.
The Laundry’s management team had the Routt County Public Health meeting playing on a computer in the Steamboat Springs restaurant, but Osborne was focused on cooking and could not listen in. Her manager came to tell her the news that the mask mandate had been lifted, and Osborne said her reaction was powerful and immediate.
“It was extremely emotional to me,” Osborne said. “I felt like a flower blossoming again.”
Osborne wears a hearing aid and relies on reading lips to communicate with others, so mask requirements forced her to change jobs. She went from working as a server and bartender at Mazzola’s Italian Restaurant, where she frequently interacted with customers, to working as a prep chef at The Laundry, where she said she often felt isolated from the public.
Osborne also suffers from complications due to multiple sclerosis, and as an immunocompromised person, she was nervous about being around crowds of people, even for essential trips, as she felt COVID-19 could be an automatic death sentence for her.
“I thought I was going to die from COVID if I got it,” Osborne said. “I was more alone than most people ever realized, because it just traumatized me.”
After hearing Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton read the county’s motion to rescind the local order, Laundry staff members dropped their duties to run and hug Osborne, who they knew had suffered a harder year than most.
“There was cheering and crying throughout the restaurant,” said Kell Kaiser, The Laundry’s general manager. “There was a sense of relief, like maybe the pandemic was finally coming to an end.”
Though public health orders were issued by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Routt County Board of Health, employees at local businesses said they often felt they were tasked with enforcing the rules, particularly the mask mandate.
“A lot of the responsibility for enforcing these public health orders was put on businesses and their employees, and it wasn’t necessarily easy,” said Marc Swanson, owner of Steamboat Ace Hardware. “Most people were cooperative, but there were some individuals who were really upset about having to wear a mask, and they would let us know that.”
Ace Hardware employees who dealt with customers refusing to wear masks were tasked with offering the customer a mask, then offering to shop for the customer, but the store occasionally had customers refuse to follow the rules, including one man who ripped his mask off his face and threw it across the counter at employees.
“There were a couple times where people got really upset, and we wanted to have the help of law enforcement around,” Swanson said.
While law enforcement officers were often contacted if customers grew aggressive or refused to leave a business, employees said being the first line of contact for customers who were often visiting from places with less strict COVID-19 rules was a stressful role to play.
“Mentally, it would take a toll on our staff when they would get yelled at by people for enforcing the rules that we had to enforce to stay open,” said Angela Sherwood, human resources manager at Rex’s Family of Restaurants. “There was a lot added to our front-of-house staff to explain why we have these rules.”
While reactions from customers varied, some employees said customers from out of state often took out their frustrations about Colorado’s rules on them.
“I had people coming in from other states who would say where they’re from, and I’d have to tell them they’re here now and to please put on a mask,” said Paula Effinger, a Steamboat Springs High School senior and server at Johnny B. Good’s Diner. “They’d say they didn’t want to, and I’d just have to say ‘that sucks, you kind of have to.’”
While frontline employees frequently bore the brunt of customer frustrations, restaurant owners said the financial losses forced them to lay off employees, which caused added layers of stress.
“We laid quite a few people off that had to leave town because they could no longer afford to pay their bills and live here,” said Dave Eliason, owner of Backdoor Grill, O’Neils Tavern and Grill, and How Ya Doin Pizza and Eats.
Eliason said his businesses saw revenue decline by about 35% decline during the pandemic.
“It was hard to have others tell us we weren’t allowed to have our businesses open,” Eliason said.
To mask or not to mask
Mask requirements hinge on whether or not someone has been vaccinated, and some local residents said they were hesitant to take the COVID-19 vaccine at first, citing concerns about potential side effects.
“I was a little hesitant, and I wanted to see how it was treating people,” said Samantha Colohan, a resident who had COVID-19 in 2020 and was concerned about the vaccine mirroring symptoms of the disease itself.
The day before Routt County lifted its mandate, Colohan signed up to receive her first shot of the Moderna vaccine, which she said she felt comfortable getting after seeing many of her family members and friends receive it with no issues.
In the meantime, Colohan still wears her masks, even when she is outside and away from other people.
“I’m a little paranoid about getting (COVID-19) again,” Colohan said.
John Mosher has received one dose of the Moderna vaccine and is scheduled to receive his second in two weeks but said he has not yet decided whether or not he’ll continue wearing his mask after being fully protected.
“Masks clearly help prevent transmission,” he said.
Others said they plan to wear their masks for the foreseeable future, as many residents across the world have not had access to the COVID-19 vaccine, and they are concerned about the virus spreading through travel.
“It’s so easy for me to put on a mask and just walk into a store, I don’t see why not,” said Grant Berke, a 15-year-old who stood in line at Safeway to receive the first shot of the COVID vaccine on Friday.
Businesses adapting to a new normal
It is expected that Routt County will see a vibrant and busy summer, as many are anxious to leave their homes and get outside, but local businesses and residents are still figuring out how to move forward.
Despite all staff members being fully vaccinated, Fuzzywig’s Candy Factory is choosing to keep its 10-person capacity restrictions in place for now.
“We wanted to honor the safety of people who still want to distance and have their masks on,” said Audrey Zwak, general manager at Fuzzywig’s.
While other businesses shared mixed views on how their policies will change, many employees said they took lessons from COVID-19 they plan to carry into the future.
“We’ve learned how to adapt to different situations with weather and how to keep people safe in a new circumstance,” Eliason said. “There is some good that came from this.”
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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The pandemic is wearing on a lot of people, especially frontline health care workers like Whittany Keating, a registered nurse at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs.