In the absence of another federal economic relief package, bars, restaurants and coffee shops in Missoula and their thousands of combined employees are weathering a drastic prolonged reduction in business.
“At this point in the pandemic, for small businesses, tensions are running high,” said Glenda Bradshaw, who owns Clyde Coffee in Missoula. “We’re exhausted and running out of money. We wonder how we’ll pay the rent and how our employees will make ends meet if we close. We all have the same end goal and that is for every business in Missoula to survive this. It’s been really hard, and I have tons of sympathy for all small business owners and our employees.”
Bradshaw recently decided to close her shop for the winter out of concern for the safety of her staff and customers.
Other businesses are trying to find a way to encourage customers to trust them.
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To try to find a way to adhere to safety standards and encourage people to still patronize bars and restaurants, a coalition of some 70 businesses recently tried to work with the local Missoula City-County Health Department to try and create a comprehensive list of measures that would allow for more business while keeping customers and staff safe.
Called Revive Missoula’s Bars and Restaurants, they ultimately found a way to agree to seated-only service and later closing times to stagger clusters of people over a larger number of hours while keeping customers in small groups and controlled spaces. The measures were recommended to the Missoula County Board of Health for adoption, but that effort was rendered moot because it was the same day Gov. Steve Bullock announced new directives specifying how restaurants and bars must operate. Now, restaurants, bars and casinos must operate at 50% capacity and will need to close by 10 p.m., among other stipulations.
Still, business owners in Missoula say the effort underlies the desperation of the times and just how close many are to having to permanently close down and lay off employees at a time when there isn’t a lot of state or federal relief money left to assist them in paying rent.
“It’s kind of a nerve-wracking thing, and it’s hard on my employees,” said Tom Hilley, who owns the Stone of Accord restaurant and bar on North Reserve Street. “Workers in this industry rely on tips. Right now, we’re doing about 50% of (the business) we usually do. I pay all my employees over the minimum wage, but they’re still used to making around $28,000-$30,000 a year. Now they’re making half that.”
Hilley noted that the reason businesses got together was because they wanted to have a “voice at the table" and the goal is giving customers a reason to be confident in their safety.
Cindy Farr, the incident commander for the local health department’s COVID-19 response team, said the increase in cases over the last couple months isn’t largely attributable to bars and restaurants.
“We are not seeing the spread in controlled areas like bars and restaurants and schools as much as we are seeing the spread in uncontrolled settings like friends and family,” Farr explained.
Hilley said he closed down Stone of Accord voluntarily on March 16, the day before what is usually one of the busiest days of the year for his business, St. Patrick’s Day.
“I gave all my employees a week’s pay and said ‘get on unemployment’ because I couldn’t imagine 250 people in this place,” he recalled. “We would have been ground-zero for Missoula. And 24 hours later, Governor Bullock closed everything down anyway.”
Hilley said he believes bars and restaurants in Missoula are following safety protocols much better than businesses in other counties.
Erika Peterman of Sova Partners in Missoula is handling public relations for Revive Missoula’s Bars and Restaurants, and she said the initiative is meant to “hold each other accountable” to safety guidelines.
Most people don't realize just how close many Missoula businesses are to going out of business in the next few months if things don't pick up, she noted.
She co-signed a letter with Mayor John Engen, Missoula’s three county commissioners and Missoula City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy saying the collaborative effort of the Revive Missoula’s Bars and Restaurants was made to balance protecting the economic and cultural health of Missoula as well as the health care system.
“While acknowledging that spread can occur in bars, restaurants and other public places, we agree that it is the job of both business and public health to implement and enforce measures that make public places as safe as possible,” they wrote. “Structured spaces that consistently practice coronavirus safety protocols can offer more protection than private and unstructured settings. As licensed establishments, bars and restaurants are already subject to numerous safety regulations and inspections. Adding COVID-specific safety measures into this structure helps balance the dual needs to slow spread and protect local businesses and employees from failure.”
Bradshaw, the owner of Clyde Coffee, said she wasn’t asked to be a part of the new group and doesn’t necessarily agree with the objective.
"Over the next few months, we need everyone in the community to step up and support all small business in whatever way they can,” Bradshaw said. “There is nothing in current health department restrictions that precludes us from doing so. Otherwise, we’re going to see massive small business failure between now and the time a vaccine becomes effective. There are many ways to do that, and although I respect what the Revive group is attempting, I fundamentally disagree with any efforts towards loosening Covid restrictions at bars helps us achieve that goal. If anything, I think it moves us backwards.”
But the letter from the Revive group said they are trying to come up with solutions.
“Montana's political climate is about to change, only adding to the uncertainty we face between now and the possibility of federal economic assistance and vaccine distribution,” they wrote. “Complete shutdowns ignore the economic health of our city and the mental health of our people when there is no federal or state money available. Complete openness ignores our residents’ health and the sustainability of our health care system. But these extremes aren’t the only options. We are adaptable and creative, and we recognize that there is a spectrum of ways to find a safe and sustainable path forward.”