CHEYENNE – The COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been easy on local restaurants and bars.

Take Freedom’s Edge Brewing Company, for example. At the beginning, owner Muriah Kilmer said they had to completely adjust their operations – since refillable growlers were deemed unsafe for the pandemic, and breweries were temporarily closed to indoor dining.

Not only that, Freedom’s Edge had to say goodbye to seeing their loyal customers regularly, as many took health precautions seriously and simply got beer to go. But now, as restrictions have been lifted as of March 16, and more and more residents are getting their vaccines, those customers are slowly filtering back in.

A certain couple had been picking up beer to go regularly throughout the pandemic, and Kilmer said it was an emotional reunification when they finally came to have a drink in person.

“They came in the other day, and it was a beautiful day; we had the garage door open,” Kilmer said. “We literally had not seen them in here for over a year, and when we saw each other, we were crying. It was just good to see them.”

For many Laramie County residents and businesses, Gov. Mark Gordon and State Health Officer Dr. Alexia Harrist’s lifting of the mask mandate and restrictions on bars and restaurants – paired with the increase in vaccinations – marked a turning point in the pandemic.

Kilmer said Freedom’s Edge, which is allowing people to choose which COVID-19 precautions they want to follow, has already started to see more customers since the orders were called off on March 16. She welcomed residents to come by for trivia or “paint and pint” events. and teased new events they’ll have this spring and summer, including a disc golf activity.

“We have an incredibly supportive community,” Kilmer said. “We had so many people that were willing to support us through everything and really helped keep us afloat during the pandemic. Now, we’re moving forward, and it feels great.”

And as the weather warms up and tourists begin to return, Wyoming State Liquor Association Director Mike Moser said business should continue trending upward from here.

“January through March are pretty slow times in the hospitality industry, because it’s cold and people just aren’t going out as much,” Moser said. “But (business) has picked up quite a bit. I don’t think it’ll be at pre-COVID levels for a little while, because there’s still some people hesitant to go out until they’re vaccinated. But it’s bouncing back pretty quickly, and it’s a really happy thing to see.”

For Ryan and Ann Clement, the owners of Dillinger’s Bar, it’s hard to gauge the difference between before and after the restrictions were lifted, since they started this business in the midst of the pandemic.

Fortunately, however, their location has the capacity for 250 people, so social distancing and capacity restrictions haven’t posed much of a challenge with so much space. Ann said the biggest hurdle they ran into was the hours restrictions implemented during the COVID-19 spike in late 2020.

“That was devastating,” Ann said. “We don’t have food service here, so we rely a lot on later-night business. People knew they had to go home at 10 p.m., and they really didn’t tend to get here until 8 or 8:30 p.m. So they just didn’t go.”

But now, as a new business with lots to offer – including space to social distance – Ann said they’re ready to entertain, with comedy shows and open mic nights.

“People should continue to patronize businesses in the way that they feel safe doing,” Ann said. “If you want to have things to do in Cheyenne, you have to keep doing the things that are in Cheyenne.”

”We need to be smart”

As some restaurants and bars have gotten rid of their mask and social distancing requirements, others around town have decided to stick with their COVID-19 precautions, at least for a little while longer. Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Director Kathy Emmons recommended that those measures, like common-sense social distancing and mask wearing, should be continued for the duration of the pandemic.

“We know the virus is still out there; it didn’t go away just because we’re changing the public health orders. So we need to be smart,” Emmons told the Tribune Eagle when Gordon announced the lifted restrictions.

That’s the route that Renee and Jon Jelinek are taking with the Paramount Cafe and Ballroom, which just reopened on March 19 after a couple months of being closed.

“We are still following all of the previous safety protocols, as we are taking guidance from the CDC and want to make sure we are providing a safe environment for our employees and guests,” Renee said in an email to the WTE. “We want to continue being as cautious as possible, at least until all of our staff that want to get vaccinated can do so.”

“The previous restrictions on capacity made sense to us, and most of our customers appreciated that we took their safety seriously,” she said.

However, Renee also said they’ve faced some resistance in requiring customers to wear masks, since the mandate had been lifted, which reflects a larger trend in the Laramie County community. She noted that they’ve added online ordering to cater to all customers – those who don’t want to wear a mask and those who want to stay at a safe social distance – but said some customers still direct their anger toward employees.

“We understand that people are tired of (masks). We are, too, but we also want to maintain a safe environment for our employees, and people are not always treating our team kindly,” Renee said. “That’s incredibly upsetting.”

Even with those experiences as of late, Renee thanked the larger Laramie County community for being there for them through it all.

“While our business has had a significant decrease in sales, we are so thankful for the support of our community, and CARES Act funding that has been a lifesaver for our businesses,” Renee said. “We appreciate that people have been making a conscious effort to support small local businesses, and we hope that they continue to do that, as it’s going to be a long time before we recover from this.”

Margaret Austin is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s local government reporter. She can be reached at maustin@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3152. Follow her on Twitter at @MargaretMAustin.

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