The coronavirus pandemic represents a worldwide event of seismic proportions, perhaps best evidenced by people’s usage of the half-joking expression “before time” to describe life in the days leading up to when COVID-19 flipped society on its head.
On March 13, 2020, President Donald Trump declared a national state of emergency after the first cases of COVID-19 emerged on American shores. The intervening 12 months have been a rollercoaster of lockdowns, restrictions, business closures, mask mandates and reopenings, with more than half a million Americans dead from the disease.
For restaurant and bar owners in the lakes area, mid-March of last year marked the beginning of a period of unprecedented struggle. Pandemics and face-to-face social encounters — the bedrock of hospitality and service industries — don’t mix, and subsequent closures and restrictions on indoor dining proved a significant challenge. For some businesses, it was insurmountable.
Opinions remain divided on whether the state’s response was valid or not.
“I still think it’s an overreaction and I think more and more states are proving that as they open back up,” said Jerod Ross, owner of the Parlor in downtown Brainerd, echoing statements he made last year to that effect. “We did it all ourselves. People in my community are amazing and super supportive. We were closed for six months and we’re still here and we couldn’t have done it without them.”
“I just miss the live music, the people not being afraid of each other — really, just the normal life we knew,” added Ross, who noted that restrictions on opening times, which typically limit bars to closing a few hours early, could be particularly challenging.
At various restaurants and eateries across the lakes area, March last year marked a sudden shift in the daily cleaning routine of employees, what they wore and how customers should be dressed when they visited, and how they arranged their businesses to accommodate 6-foot spaces between customers. These measures are now commonplace and old hat. At the time, they were uncharted territory.
“There wasn’t really any expectation that something was going to happen,” said Shalee Britton, general manager of Prairie Bay Restaurant and Catering. “Sometimes it’s hard to remember how things used to be before last year. It’s just the new normal now. I miss seeing people’s faces the most. Seeing their eyes just doesn’t really do it.”
“Many of our customers are really COVID conscious and we haven’t seen them in more than a year,” she added. “They’re still not coming out.”
For Sarah Hayden Shaw, the owner of Sage on Laurel in downtown Brainerd, the pandemic led to a significant change in how she’d interact with customers. Not only were customers restricted in how and when they could purchase meals at Sage on Laurel, but Shaw suddenly found herself in a role where she needed to enforce standards and challenge her customers to follow mandates — a far cry from the “customer is always right” mindset that many business owners follow to attract, serve, and retain customers.
At the time, Shaw and the staff of Sage on Laurel were preparing for St. Patrick’s Day festivities. Ultimately, those plans went down the drain like holiday plans across the nation and, instead of finding green-spangled banners and Irish-themed decorations, businesses had to find a way to stay afloat for an extended downturn.
“At the beginning of March (2020), there was a whisper it might be worse than we thought, but we didn’t really think what happened was going to happen,” Shaw said with a laugh. “We had to be flexible and do a lot of things in a short period of time. It was a matter of establishing a reputation of being a safe and careful place. It was about being flexible and being able to weather the year.”