Local businesses bear the brunt of COVID safety enforcement, and resistance

JACKSON, Wyo. — The name shouted at Brianna Moteberg in her store recently is… too vulgar for print.

Moteberg owns Altitude on Jackson’s Town Square, one of many storefronts that is requiring masks upon entry. A large piece of paper on Altitude’s door alerts customers of the requirement before they enter. Recently, Moteberg alleges a customer became aggressive and angry when asked to comply, and shouted profanities at Moteberg.

Another manager of a different shop on the Town Square, who asked to remain anonymous, has had several similar experiences.

“It’s exhausting,” she says.

Still, what scares them the most isn’t the assault, but rather the possible consequences of another COVID-19 spike in the middle of the biggest earning months for local businesses. A big enough spike could lead to another shut-down, and many small businesses would be hard-pressed to survive.

“Most of us are making around 75% of our money May through October. If you take out those months that are crucial to pay rent, support employees and fair and reasonable wages… you’re making it impossible,” Moteberg says.

The financial loss of losing a few disgruntled, maskless customers is far more palatable than the potential devastation of closing in the middle of the summer.

“If I closed in July, [Altitude] would be done.”

Moteberg wrote an email to town councilors asking them to make masks mandatory in town. Arcy Hawks, owner of Habits, did the same.

“I don’t think I could survive if I had to close again,” Hawks said. “I need those dollars.”

Such a closure would happen at the discretion of Teton Health District Officer Travis Riddell and State Health Officer Alexia Harrist. At prior community updates, Riddell has said that the “trigger” for reversing course on openings or shutting down altogether, will not be a specific number, but rather based on trends: rate of spread, percent of community spread, hospital admissions, etc.

“It’s not possible to give a specific number or data point for each of those metrics,” Riddell said at a community update in May. “We’re forced to rely on trends.”

Wyoming is in the middle of another uptick. Numbers released Monday showed that infections in the state grew by the fastest rate since early May.

Teton County’s active cases rose to nine late last week, but dropped back down to five by Wednesday. There are currently zero COVID-19 patients hospitalized at St. John’s Health. As of Tuesday, 83% of St. John’s ICU beds and 42% of total hospital beds are available.

Town Square has been bustling with people, some in masks, some not. Photo: Buckrail // Nick Sulzer

Visitation, meanwhile, has not slowed. According to location data from Placer.ai, a location analytics software, traffic on the Town Square last Friday was higher than the three-year average for the same day.

“It’s busy,” says Christain Burch, co-owner of Mountain Dandy. “I can’t tell if it’s busier than normal or because I expected it not to be.”

Masks have become a political symbol as much as a public health precaution, but Moteberg says it’s “not about your politics.”

“It’s about the desire to create a community that is going to survive,” she says.

And that’s the catch-22 about resistance to masks, Moteberg says. Those who don’t wear them “don’t want the government to have control. But the crux is that the government has the control to shut it down.” As far as she’s concerned, if the government has to shut down again, then they’ve won. “You’re just giving them more control,” Moteberg says.

To Burch, masks are like pants. You wear them as a courtesy. Similarly, plenty of businesses have a strict “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy.

“It’s not hurting anything,” Burch says.

When Burch first spoke with Buckrail Tuesday, he was not yet requiring masks but “strongly encouraging” them.

“I’m not being aggressive about it,” he says. “That’s the tough part. Your whole day becomes about masks.”

But by Wednesday, he had changed his policy at all he and his partner’s stores: Mountain Dandy, MADE, M, and Mursell’s Sweet Shop.

And that lack of continuity, and leadership, is part of the problem, Hawks says. Campaigns from the Chamber of Commerce and the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board are working to encourage masks, but they have no legal authority.

Hawks is sympathetic to the political pressure of enacting a mask requirement, be it by health order or ordinance. But even that would have little power without support from the governor.

“We can say ‘mandatory,’ but if it’s not a law mandated by the state, there’s not much we can do,” Hawks says.

Such a law “would lift pressure off of store owners and business owners.”

Burch agrees. “As a business owner, it would make it much easier. Then it’s not on me [to enforce],” he says.

And neither business owners nor their employees signed up to “be police in our own stores,” as the anonymous store manager puts it. Managers and store owners bear a lot of the brunt of angry customers, but they’re in charge, so they’ll take it.

“It’s obviously not something I want to deal with, but I’d rather me than my staff. I don’t know how younger people… would handle that.”

Moteberg, too, fears for the safety of her employees. “It should not be our job to hire security for our store,” she says.

In separate posts on Instagram, both Burch and Frechette urged shoppers to “look like a local” by wearing masks in their respective stores. Burch hopes that visitors will follow the example set by locals. He thinks he’s seen it already. More people are wearing masks now than they were two weeks ago, he says. Representatives from the Chamber have taken to the Town Square to offer masks to visitors and businesses. The Tourism Board spent this week distributing flyers and posters local businesses can use to encourage mask use.

 

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As you visit Jackson Hole this summer, we ask that you wear a cloth face covering or mask while in public spaces, particularly in spaces where it is difficult or impossible to maintain social distancing. This includes shops, the town square, restaurants, crowded trailheads, hotel lobbies, and more. This request is in accordance with the CDC and Teton County Public Health.? ? Additionally, we ask that visitors respect the safety policies put in place by local establishments pertaining to wearing a mask. Most local shops are requiring a face mask to enter, and often have extras available if you do not have your own.? ? We are a small town with limited medical resources and need everyone to do their part to protect fellow visitors as well as the local community.? ? If you’d like more information, please visit https://www.visitjacksonhole.com/responsibly-wild.

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Moteberg doesn’t want to fight with customers. She doesn’t want to enforce her mask rule. She wants visitors to love this town as much as she does. But to love something is to protect it. If Teton County were forced to shut down again, there would be no town left to love.

“I wish that people would understand that whatever their thoughts are [about masks], if you just wear the masks, you’re going to keep us in business,” Moteberg says. “What I’m asking you to do is be kind to those businesses who can’t afford to shut down again.”

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