Busy bee

The Busy Bee Cafe reopened for dining in on Friday following the approval of a variance for restaurants in Johnson County. Restaurants must comply with a variety of guidelines in the variance, including that staff members wearing face masks at all times.

Bulletin photo by Stephen Dow 

State health officer Dr. Alexia Harrist granted variances allowing restaurants, bars, religious services and funerals to reopen in Johnson County late last week.

But with dozens of provisions for businesses to meet and a general wariness on the part of the public, it may still be a long road to normalcy, according to Jackie Stewart, co-owner of the Occidental Saloon and Busy Bee Café.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a roller coaster,” Stewart said. “Some folks are very comfortable already, and they were ready to get back to their old routines when we opened up on Friday. For others, it’s not going to come that quickly. We’re going to have our good days and our bad days. We’re not expecting things to go back to the way they were before COVID-19. It doesn’t work like that.”

The first of two variances approved by Harrist on Thursday evening allow for the reopening of “restaurants, food courts, cafes, coffeehouses, bars, taverns, brew pubs, breweries, microbreweries, distillery pubs, wineries, tasting rooms, special licensees and clubs” in Johnson County. The second variance allows churches and funeral homes to have gatherings of more than 10 people. Neither variance includes enforcement mechanisms for the various provisions.

The county variances, which are similar to those approved in other counties, including Natrona, Park and Sheridan, are part of state and county officials’ tentative steps to reopen the state after several weeks of closures due to the spread of the coronavirus. Modified state public health orders stipulated that gyms, hair and nail salons and barbershops could reopen on May 1. On May 5, the Johnson County commissioners approved the reopening of most county buildings to the public.

The variances come more than six weeks after Harrist issued public health orders closing personal care services – including hair and nail salons – and limiting restaurants to carryout orders only. 

The new county variances come with multiple provisions that businesses must follow, Stewart said. For restaurant owners, those 21 provisions range from maintaining a 6-foot distance between tables to requiring staff to wear face coverings to having dedicated staff members sanitize tables after a customer’s departure.

Most of these requirements are fairly straightforward, Stewart said, and are things that the Busy Bee had already put in place while offering curbside takeout meals over the past several weeks.

“We had our masks, we had our gloves, we had already separated our seating because we knew that was what restaurants in other states were doing,” Stewart said. “When the variances came through on Thursday night, we were ready to reopen on Friday even though it was just (husband and co-owner) David and I at that point. We didn’t bring employees back until Monday.”

Stewart said the first few days of her businesses’ reopening were touch and go. Hardly anybody came to the Busy Bee on Friday, she said, but the saloon was full. On Mother’s Day, every table at the café was full as families celebrated with their mothers, but things were back to a slow trickle on Monday morning.

Unlike the Busy Bee, Big Horn Baptist Church didn’t even attempt a “normal” routine this past weekend, according to Pastor Don Paulson. But the church is currently targeting a reopening on May 17.

“It’s going to be an interesting challenge,” Paulson said. “It’s always difficult when you put a lot of people in a big room together, and I think all the churches are going to struggle with how to keep people safe. I announced during yesterday’s service that all the huggers out there are going to have to reel things in for a while. Probably for the foreseeable future.”

Like restaurants and bars, churches and funeral homes are subject to provisions in the variance, Paulson said. Among the 10 provisions for reopening are serving communion in individual containers and cleaning buildings thoroughly after each service.

“There will be no coffee machines, no drinking fountains,” Paulson said. “We’re probably not going to have a nursery for now. We are just going to have the family units sit together and make sure that family units are seated at least 6 feet apart from each other.”

Paulson said that he has no idea what this coming Sunday will bring for the church. He said that Big Horn Baptist would continue to livestream services for churchgoers who don’t feel comfortable returning to the physical church building just yet.

“I am really excited that church is starting up again, but we’re not really pushing people to come back because that should be everybody’s individual choice,” Paulson said. “I don’t know what things are going to look like come next Sunday. I don’t think anybody does really. We’ll just have to figure it out as we go.”

Stephen Dow covers a variety of beats for the Buffalo Bulletin including the Johnson County Commissioners and JCSD #1. Stephen is a Billings native who joined the Bulletin in 2016.

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