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Amid coronavirus related restrictions Lincoln business owners hope for best

Nearly a week after orders went into effect to close bars and limit restaurants to take out and delivery, downtown Lincoln was a far more subdued place.

Late Saturday morning, the stools at Lambkins Bar were turned up on the bar and the tables were pushed aside as owner Glen Kolve and Francis Beehler fired up a large carpet cleaner. Like some other business owners in Lincoln, Kolve is using the downtime to work on projects to "fix this and fix that."

A noticeably glum Kolve said the closure order has been "a big hit" to his business. Although they've been providing take-out breakfasts every morning, he said it's not enough to fill the gap.

The closure order – first issued by Lewis and Clark Public Health March 16, – had an immediate and noticeable effect on bars and restaurants, which serve as a cornerstone for Lincoln service-based economy. Gov. Steve Bullock Issued a week-long, statewide order aimed at bars and restaurants March 19, the same day the county order was expanded to include churches.

The closure order came amid a falling economy and a nationwide increase in coronavirus cases that was already affecting the statewide travel industry. According to a March 16 report from the University of Montana Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research, 36 percent of travel business owners had seen coronavirus-related cancelations by March 13, before any cases were reported in the state. Within a day of the Lewis and Clark County closure order, Montana had reported its first case.

Next door to Lambkins, The Sportsman Motel wasn't technically affected by the closure orders, and owner Dick Birkholz said they're open for anyone who wants a room, but they are feeling the effect as the bar restrictions and the earlier statewide school closure led to canceled events.

"One hundred percent of the people canceled their reservations," he said. "We have two reservations from now until June 1."

The Lincoln Log Hotel likewise reported losing most of their reservations for the next several weeks.

Though mid-March is a relatively slow time for Lincoln - between snowmobile season and the busy summer - businesses have historically counted on significant events like the Pete Sitch Basketball Tournament to provide an infusion of cash as they come out of the winter.

"This last winter was a long winter and it just got a lot longer," said Wheel Inn owner Laurie Richards.

Regardless, most business owners understand the goal of "flattening the curve" of the virus' spread that was behind the closures.

"I think this was an unprecedented thing that quickly came upon us," said Dan Lerum, owner of Bushwackers. "No one was sure how to address it. I think leaning on the side of caution was the best way to go. I think everybody's concern is how long, and when will this come to an end?"

That seems to be the big question, and one without a definitive answer. Currently the state order is set to expire March 27, and the county restrictions are supposed to be up March 30, but as the number of confirmed cases in the state and throughout the country increase, the prevailing opinion is that they will be extended.

Like other business owners, Lerum said he still has his normal monthly bills to contend with, but no income. He said the question comes down to how long he can endure before he can start to recoup some of that income.

Jason and Tiana Valler, who closed their Heritage House coffee house and canceled their classes they had scheduled for the duration, think it all may depend on whether people take the coronavirus prevention measures seriously. The couple, who have an immune-compromised son, see the value in closing businesses briefly to delay the disease's spread, but are concerned it could become a continuing series of orders that will extend beyond their ability to hold on.

At the national level, news reports often feature predictions that closures and lockdowns may last months, while as late as Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump said he hopes to have the national economy opened back up by Easter.

Looking at the bigger picture, Richards said she's very concerned about the snowball effect local, state and national measures will have on the town, which now relies on a service economy driven by visitors and tourists.

"People who had been planning to come here are likely out of work due to the coronavirus restrictions," she said, "They may no longer be able to visit."

Beyond the hospitality industry, Deane Foley said they haven't seen much of an impact at Grizzly Hardware yet, but expects it to trickle down in time. "If it goes more than a couple weeks, I think we're gonna feel it more in town."

While most of the business owners seem confident they can weather things for a couple weeks or maybe a month, things may get dicey if it drags on beyond that.

Taking a longer view, Birkholz is concerned that if things continue into the summer season, whether outright closures or a slow economic recovery, it will impact most businesses until the following summer.

"A lot of people don't think about that," he said. "They think about this year and the next couple of months, but if people are scared all through the summer, if you don't have that robust summer, you don't have enough to take you through next winter either."

Richards, who said the Wheel inn has been doing fairly well with their take-out and delivery meals for the time being, said the lack of an endpoint is what's scary, and she looked to statewide lockdowns that have been enacted in other states as the worst-case scenario,

"I feel this a bad movie. Something I never thought I would ever witness." she said.

Perhaps the hardest hit in all this are the employees of the businesses impacted by the coronavirus-related closures.

"Our biggest concerns are our employees," Riesbeck said. "We've given out a notice to them that we will be covering their average pay through the end of the month so far," he said they know that doesn't cover all their lost income, since most of their money came from tips, but they're trying to keep things going for them.

On March 17, Bullock offered some relief for workers by adopting expedited roles that allowed for workers laid off by the coronavirus measures to waive the one-week waiting period to apply for unemployment.

Notwithstanding the onslaught of bad news and the generally grim outlook, everyone is looking forward to getting things rolling again. Richards remains realistic about how fast things may turn around once the restrictions are lifted.

"I think it's going to be slow going. I don't think people are going to jump in with both feet," Richards said. "This is the time of year things start getting busy, but this year I don't think that's going to happen when they lift the restrictions."

Vallers agree that peoples "pocketbooks are still going to be locked up," but they are hopeful Lincoln may see an increase in business, since people are still likely to be nervous and in a social distancing frame of mind.

"If businesses talk to each other and find out ways to work together, and we can get through to the beginning of summer, the recreation industry is probably going to explode when everything stops," Tiana Valler said. "And we're a safe place to come, instead of going to like New York.

Many business owners are also trying to put their down time to good use, and like Kolve are tackling projects in their businesses, so they can be ready when business re-opens and the economy ramps back up.

Birkholz is taking advantage of his cancelations to go "overboard on the sanitation" of his rooms, while Lerum is tending to some kitchen improvements at Bushwackers. At the Wheel, the Richards are scrubbing the walls and re-vamping the men's restroom, and at the Wilderness, Riesbeck said they'd already planned to close for a while this spring to deal with some work that was needed on the building.

"It wasn't going to be this extended amount of time," Riesbeck said. "What else are you going to do? You might as well get it done now when you're not busy."

At Heritage House, Jason Valler said the coronavirus hasn't impacted the supply chains for coffee so they're still roasting and delivering Vallers Coffee, and they're considering ways to increase their online presence and sales.

Despite being a relatively new business that stands to be hit hard if the closures and economic downturn drag on too long, the Vallers are surprisingly optimistic that things can work out for Lincoln in the end, if businesses will pull together.

"If we're moving forward like everything's going to be OK and we're planning our events through the summer, we might be where it will help everyone bounce back afterwards. It might really be a cool thing, bringing our business community together and helping us recover afterwards, you know?" Tiana Valler said. "If we take this time, and everyone gets over the shock and comes together- the businesses and chamber and different people come together- I think it could be pretty cool on the other side."


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