At least a fourth of Laramie’s 100+ restaurants and bars have opened their doors again in recent weeks, following Gov. Mark Gordon’s easing of shutdowns on May 15 and an early exception for Albany County on May 8.
Similar to the new orders regarding businesses such as salons and gyms, Gordon’s green light for food and drink establishments comes with the provision that certain expectations are met, including ensuring tables have 6 feet between them and requiring masks and gloves for staff. Patrons must be seated at booths and tables, and no more than six in a group may be present unless part of the same household. Games and events such as karaoke and pool leagues are prohibited, and self-serving condiments are a no-no. Gordon’s orders pertaining to COVID-19 can be read in full at www.governor.wyo.gov.
Take-out and delivery has helped sustain many Laramie establishments and continues to do so, but the long shutdown period had an impact on not only revenue, but morale as well.
“It was definitely a more trying time frame. It obviously sucks when we’re not able to take care of the guests in the way that we’d like to – being able to actually interact with them on a more personal level,” said Dalton Culbertson, general manager of Laramie’s Rib & Chop House.
A spreadsheet listing the status of just under 100 restaurants and bars in Laramie is available to those that join the Laramie Take Out & Business Support Group on Facebook. Details such as hours, addresses, and phone numbers are listed for businesses, and many are updated to show that their dining is open and ready for patrons.
Some locations, such as Rib & Chop, were able to get off the ground again shortly after Albany County’s early variance, while others needed a bit more prep time and some are still gearing up. Juan Soto, general manager of the Library Sports Grille and Brewery, said both the closing and reopening orders came as a surprise.
“March 18, on a Thursday, we really didn’t know what was going on – we’re up in limbo, then we’re told ‘hey, you guys gotta shut down tomorrow until further notice,’” Soto said. “We had ordered all our food for that weekend and we’re told we can’t do anything with it, told the staff ‘hey, we don’t know when we can open again.’”
Locations like the Library needed time to sort out new hires, supply orders and be sure they could meet the expectations of reopening.
“We’re not the only ones in town looking to replenish staff, and get bar staff and server staff hired up,” Soto said.
Businesses such as Niko Sushi and Steak took advantage of social media during the shutdown to post videos demonstrating their methods of food preparation and maintaining high health and safety standards, as well as the Laramie Chamber of Commerce’s page. Making use of video and print advertisements, Niko kept busy with delivery and to-go orders. Sonny Kam, co-owner, said it was also important for his business’s image to remain open and continue to engage patrons.
“People need something reliable. Reliable restaurants,” Kam said. “We were thinking that we were going to close down the restaurant until dining opened back up – but if we close down, the people won’t trust our restaurant again. It could be one month, two months, and it looks like ‘oh, this restaurant is not steady.’”
Now that dine-in is open again, Niko, like many Laramie restaurants, is welcoming back a particular crowd of regulars and familiar faces.
“We are small business, most of the customer we know — almost 80% is return customer,” said Seno Mulyanto, co-owner.
Deirdre O’Dwyer, co-owner of O’Dwyer’s public house, said the support of their regulars meant a lot for her business.
“We’ve been supported by a lot of people who have been customers for a while – we’re very thankful for their help,” O’Dwyer said. “There are a lot of people who are still out of the ritual of dining out … we’re doing everything we can to make people feel comfortable to come back.”
Some Laramie residents who are out and about for dine-in said they aren’t nervous about the possibility of catching COVID-19 at this point, especially given Wyoming’s low rate of transmission — and some called the shutdowns an “absurd” example of government overreach that has done lasting harm to people’s livelihoods.
Soto said the presence and feedback of the Library’s patrons is an important part of moving forward.
“If they didn’t feel we were doing things right or didn’t feel comfortable coming out, they wouldn’t,” Soto said. “But on the flipside, we’re all so close that not one of them would shy away from telling us that — they would be brutally honest with it.”
The future is still clouded for establishments in Laramie and Wyoming in general, as it remains to be seen how tourism and travel will be impacted, but restaurant staff and patrons say it’s good to have people dining in again.
“We build environments here for people to come in and enjoy themselves — to have them sit empty is heartbreaking. It’s wonderful to have them back,” O’Dwyer said. “Things are definitely not back to normal — we’ll just play it out this summer, see how it goes.”