HAMILTON, Mont. – An elderly gentleman sits outside the River Rising Bakery with his face bare. He's here every morning greeting customers while he sips his coffee and reads. People are bustling around inside, waiting to be ordered. A group of mothers are chatting at a corner table.
Employees wear masks, but customers don't have to. Most of them don't. It almost feels normal. As if the pandemic never happened.
Half a block away in Hamilton, at Big Creek Coffee Roasters, most customers don't go inside. Instead, they wait to order at a makeshift to-go window. There are plenty of strollers and lululemon tights, and most of the people in line are wearing a mask. If anyone walked in, wearing one would be mandatory.
One Montana block, two small businesses – and two different decisions about getting customers to wear masks.
This summer, Governor Steve Bullock ordered face coverings in public spaces to combat a surge in Covid-19 cases. But the Hamilton sheriff, assisted by Ravalli County's officials, chose not to enforce the order, saying that individual rights would prevail. That decision left small businesses in the midst of a month-long national conflict over masks as they tried to keep employees safe and keep their doors open without alienating customers.
For the owner of River Rising, Nicki Ransier, the decision of the inspectors made her life easier: "It took some pressure off us because we don't have this confrontation with our customers when they come in."
Prior to the governor's order, Ms. Ransier asked her staff to wear masks, but some customers berated their staff – some of whom are in high school – about the decision. A customer told staff that they "bow their knees to tyranny" by following Mr. Bullock's orders.
Other patrons wanted Ms. Ransier to need all-round masks for everyone and to install expensive Plexiglas barriers. Feeling like she couldn't please anyone, she decided that her policies would focus on what she could control: employees. She let customers choose, but asked her 14 employees to wear masks even though it can be hot and miserable.
"We have a lot of older customers," said Ms. Ransier. "And in my heart I just thought," What if I got Bob – the man who sits at the door every day – or someone who is sick? "I would just feel awful."
But the commissioners' move frustrated Randy Lint, owner of Big Creek Coffee Roasters. He thought the governor's order would end the masking of conflict. Instead, he said, "the decision of the commissioners brings us into conflict with customers."
"Dealing with the aftermath of stressed customers has been one of the toughest parts of the pandemic," Lint said.
He is grateful for the to-go window and the delay it offers – at least when the weather is nice. He added propane heating to extend the outdoor season, but once winter comes and customers come inside, he knows his politics will be an issue again. Nevertheless, he could not risk one of his seven employees contracting Covid-19. In this case, it would have to shut down for two weeks so that everyone can be quarantined. Mr. Lint said he wasn't sure he could emotionally survive the experience.
"The danger is that everything will crush my mind," he said.
It's a fear based on reality: Naps Grill, one of the busiest restaurants in town, recently decided to temporarily close after several workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
Making decisions for business owners and customers is made difficult by the slow pandemic to hit Ravalli County, which is part of the Bitterroot Valley, a stretch of roughly 100 miles in isolated southwest Montana. The county is 2,400 square miles – almost the size of Delaware – but there have been just over 300 cases of coronavirus and four deaths from Covid-19 since March. More than a quarter of these cases occurred in the past week and resulted in several local schools being closed for several days. And with the region's reliance on tourists during the hunting season and the influx of pandemic refugees from more populous states, anything could happen this fall.
Rocky Mountain Laboratories, where researchers are trying to develop a vaccine against Covid-19, are located in the city of almost 5,000 inhabitants. It's also the county seat, which is popular for shopping and business, and a gateway to serious trout streams and other outdoor recreational activities. That means everyone mingling on Main Street: white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, wealthy ranchers, scientists, lifelong bartenders, multi-generation residents, tourists, hunters, kayakers, conservatives, and liberals.
There's an awkward truce between newcomers with high-paying jobs looking for the Montana lifestyle and longtime bitterrooters whose wages have been rising slowly, despite the county's average home price climbing 60 percent since January 2017.
"We are conscientiously apolitical," said Mr. Lint, who has lived in Hamilton for 25 years. "It's a survival mechanism. We have a lot of old bitterrooters that otherwise wouldn't come here. We're just trying to have a good drink and kindness."
That's the chorus up and down. Regardless of their policies, most owners keep their company's social media and public statements strictly neutral. But masks have become a very public symbol that people shape their own assumptions about.
"It's pretty exhausting," said Shawn Wathen, co-owner of the Chapter One Book Store, a cater corner of Big Creek. "If one day we could go and not have to talk about masks, it would be just amazing."
"The governor's order should fix this for us so we can focus on staying open as a company, right?" added the other owner, Mara Lynn Luther. "And that's so frustrating."
Chapter 1 has been a staple in Hamilton since 1974, and both Ms. Luther and Mr. Wathen were employees before they became owners. They jokingly call themselves bartenders – because customers bring them their biggest problems. It's a real trust exercise when someone asks them to order a title on mental health or how to save their marriage. They love the hours they spend talking to buyers about books and big ideas.
Recently, an elderly woman came in and refused when she was told the shop needed masks. Instead of throwing out her long-standing customer or using harsh words, Ms. Luther asked if the woman was okay. The two talked and Ms. Luther learned that the woman, who could not see facial expressions, was really afraid to see people in masks. When the woman comes in, says Ms. Luther, she masks herself without complaint.
“Do we always share the same views and values as our entire community? No, ”said Ms. Luther. "But we just kept these lines of communication open for years and really tried hard never to make anyone feel like we were closing the door on them."
Across the street from Big Sky Candy, owners Michele DeGroot and their daughter Marlena Fehr have made a different decision: They don't ask guests to mask themselves while browsing through chocolates, truffles, toffees, fudge and caramels. The couple have been making the treats from scratch for 19 years and they love it when people who came in as kids now bring their own kids.
That community connection is partly why they chose not to enforce the governor's mask mandate: They didn't want anyone to feel bad in a place that was supposed to bring joy. In place of the "Masks Required" sign, a notice on the front door stating that the order will not be enforced and partially added, "Basically, it's up to you. You do what you see fit. We won't get you." The rest of the world judges enough. We don't need that here. We love each of you. "
This is how Ms. Ransier from River Rising feels about her customers: She loves them all. She cries when she talks about how much they mean to her and how Covid showed her how much the cafe means to them. When the pandemic hit, their "old Curmudgeon regulars" were the first to offer monetary donations to help keep them afloat.
"I didn't even think they really care as long as we have their pastries," she said. "But these ranchers, you know, they won't wear their hearts on their sleeves. Something good always comes out of everything."
It's bittersweet because she recently sold the business to her landlord, Fenn Nelson. The two had been in talks before the pandemic, and the timing finally worked.
So far, Mr Nelson has no plans to make any significant changes to the menu, staff, or mask policy. At his other store, the Higherground Brewing Company microbrewery, he strongly recommends customers wear masks inside but does not let staff insist on them.
"At one level, I feel like I should push for masks more," said Nelson. “But on the other hand, I have a feeling at what price? In order for us to survive, we need everyone as customers. "