Natrona County Businesses Adapting to COVID Surge
Amber Pollock and her team at Backwards Distilling Company are doing everything they can to keep their community safe and to avoid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
Many businesses in Casper are making efforts to keep their customers and their employees safe and healthy. Some businesses, like Peaches Restaurant, have closed their lobby and are only offering drive-thru services.
Others, like Backwards Distilling Co., have closed their tasting rooms while still offering to-go cocktails for those who need their mid-week (or day) alcoholic pick-me-up.
A few businesses have closed entirely, and indefinitely. Regardless of the measures taken, it’s important to note that most business owners in Casper realize and understand the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic and are doing everything in their power to keep their people safe. Sometimes this takes sacrifice, as is the case with Pollock and her team.
“Going into this decision [to shut down our tasting room], we really decided that our biggest priority would be to keep our staff and customers as safe as we possibly could,” Pollock said. “The second priority would be to try and generate enough revenue so that we would be in a position to weather this current climate and still be open on the other side.”
Currently, Backwards is offering to-go curbside service, every weekend, featuring a rotating menu of various cocktails. This service is open from 2- 8 p.m. on Fridays, noon to 8 p.m. on Saturdays, and 12 - 4 p.m. on Sundays. So far, Pollock said, Backwards’ to-go service has been able to sustain them but, still, the future remains uncertain at best.
“As we saw the last time we had a number of weeks [that only offered] to-go cocktails, it was extremely successful for a while and then sort of tapered off as things drove on longer and longer, which is sort of predictable,” she continued. “When something is new, lots of people want to experience it, and we also had people that knew why we were shutting down and still wanted to offer their support. I think that’s happening again, this time, but as things wear on, it becomes more and more of a grind and it gets harder and harder to maintain and sustain that level of interest.”
Backwards will continue to be shown support, not just because of the business but because of the people who make up the business. Pollock, herself, was recently named to City Council in Natrona County and she has an ardent group of friends, fans, and followers that will support her in any endeavor – this election was proof of that. Other businesses, however, have to scratch and claw their way to success, especially amid the current pandemic. This is why some of them are so hesitant to close for the time being, even if it’s in the best interest of the community and of themselves.
“This is an incredibly difficult position that business owners are in right now because it’s not just about making money. You’ve also got payroll; you’ve got people that are depending on that income; it’s a really difficult position to be in.”
Pollock continued, stating that she would “like to see a larger strategy, so that we don’t have every business sort of trying to make the best decision for their business in the community. It’s not coordinated right now.”
As of Wednesday, there are no business closure mandates in Wyoming. There are very few mask mandates. Really, there are no mandates, period, as Governor Gordon has more or less adopted a “wait-and-see” approach to the pandemic. After 8 months of waiting, residents of Natrona County, and Wyoming as a whole, still have yet to see if there will be any sort of coordinated, government-issued plan to follow in the wake of the coronavirus. While the state awaits answers, most businesses, for the time being, are being forced to fend for themselves.
Bill Douglass is the owner of Peaches Family Restaurant, a fast-food joint that has been a staple of Casper for years. When the coronavirus first appeared, Peaches was one of the first restaurants to close down their lobby. Luckily, the restaurant also has a drive-thru, which has been their saving grace throughout this time period.
“We’ve been real steady, thankfully,” Douglass stated. “There have been ups and downs throughout the months, but our business has stayed pretty normal.”
This is something other fast-food restaurants can also attest to. Most have shut down their lobbies as well, instead focusing solely on drive-thru services. For juggernauts like McDonald’s or Wendy’s, this isn’t as big of a deal. It’s the smaller, locally-owned businesses that are taking the biggest hits and are having to reinvent themselves in the time of COVID.
“Our lobby is so small that in order for us to follow all the guidelines that the government was putting out, we would’ve only had a few tables,” Douglass said. “ So it just wasn’t really worth it. The trouble with [keeping our lobby open] is that you can’t let the customers do anything. You’ve got to do everything- get drinks, etc. It was a whole new situation for us. We probably would have had to hire more help to do less business, so it just didn’t make any sense.”
He continued, stating that “It would have been a lot tougher to survive this without the drive-thru, let’s put it that way.”
Likewise, it would have been hard for Backwards to survive without their curbside service as well. Some businesses, however, can’t even rely on that.
A Starbucks store, located on Center Street, recently closed down completely for the time being. When reached for comment, the answer given was that it simply closed down “for health and safety reasons.”
Still, businesses are optimistic that, eventually, things will go back to normal…or whatever the “new normal” may be. But, according to Pollock, it’s going to take some time, as well as some guidance from state and local officials. As an elected official herself, Pollock believes that somebody should develop a clear direction on what businesses and individuals should do.
“I just wish there was somebody who was more hands-on and I’m just not seeing that, really, at any level of our government right now,” she said. “I know there are decisions being made, of course. And I know that there are people who are knowledgeable about the situation and who are monitoring it, but as far as I can tell, the responsibility is still just being put on individuals, rather than trying to come up with a community-wide plan. And this is a community issue. What happens in your community is the primary, driving factor of what your outcome is going to be. So, to me, if we had a more comprehensive plan that we could explain and justify and put into action, we would see better results. And then, maybe, the shorter-term shutdown would, in fact, change the trajectory of our curve right now. But if it’s just a few businesses here and there actually doing it, it’s probably not going to have the same effect.”
Of course, it’s more than just dollars and cents that are at stake here. Lives are also at stake. Even those who have previously claimed COVID-19 was a “hoax,” have since began to understand the severity of the virus.
Pollock said the biggest reason Backwards has decided to close the doors of its speakeasy for the time being is simply because they don’t want to contribute to the already alarmingly high number of people who are currently hospitalized.
“Throughout this whole situation, we’ve been really listening to our community, and we know what the capacity for the hospital is at right now. We know that they’re getting pushed to the limit and that they’re having issues with a lot of their staff getting sick and the situation is just getting progressively more difficult.”
Wyoming recently set an all-time high record for coronavirus hospitalizations. That number grows with each passing day and Wyoming Medical Center is at max capacity when it comes to ICU beds, due to COVID. Various rumors and innuendo are making the rounds, but there is still no formal plan when it comes to combating the virus.
“The longer this goes on and the further politicized it’s become, I think it’s gotten harder to make any sort of decision because everybody has done their ‘research’ and has an idea of what they think the solution should be,” Pollock said. “I think the most practical and the most impactful approach would be something at the state level; that way we’re all on the same page about what our approach, what our strategy, what our metrics should be.
"It’s like, when do we consider this to be a major problem? What is the death rate? What is the hospital capacity rate? What are our metrics that we’re looking for and, if we surpass any of them, what sort of action does that trigger? I don’t think there’s an answer to that right now, and I’ve heard similar questions being asked within the school districts. Like, what kind of levels of virus spread are we comfortable with, in terms of knowing if we can manage it or not?”
As a business owner and a city council member herself, Pollock has a unique perspective. Regardless, until tough decisions are made (and these are tough decisions- nobody wants to be the reason why a small business had to close its doors or fire its employees, but nobody wants to be the reason somebody died, either) it is up to individuals to do what they think is right. Eventually, hopefully, the virus will be contained and life can get back to some semblance of normal. For the time being, however, residents of Natrona County, and Wyoming as a whole, must work together to take care of each other, and of themselves. Part of doing that is by studying and learning the approaches that have or haven’t worked. Because the only way to avoid repeating history is to learn from it.
So far, that’s exactly what businesses in Natrona County have done.