Workers Juggle Risky Business

As COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Teton County, some employees, business owners worry for their safety and their jobs.
Jafet Hernandez Moreno monitors the number of customers entering Jackson Trading Company. Moreno, 18, hasn't personally had confrontations with people resistant to wearing masks. But his boss, owner Sean Love, says it is a continuous challenge for the Town Square business. (Robyn Vincent/KHOL)

by | Jul 24, 2020 | COVID-19

At long last the entire county has a mask mandate. But that doesn’t mean service workers are resting easy. COVID-19 cases in the valley have spiked dramatically in the past two weeks with 99 new infections. As of Friday, there were a record 72 active cases of the novel coronavirus in Teton County and 182 people under quarantine orders. Employees at grocery stores, hotels, restaurants and spas say the influx of tourists has fueled their safety concerns.

Kathleen Osterman-Meisner is an assistant manager of the Whole Health department at Jackson Whole Grocer, a job that requires frequent contact with customers. She said some customers pull their masks down when they ask her a question, defeating the purpose of face coverings.

“I attempt to be as neutral as possible when telling them I can hear them through their mask,” Osterman-Meisner said.

Jackson Whole Grocer was ahead of the game in requiring mask-wearing in the store. Since June 1 there has been an employee stationed at the store entrance to ensure everyone entering is masked.  However, once customers are through the door, their masks don’t always stay on.

“There are more people than I can count who wear their mask below their nose – either because the mask doesn’t fit well or they just don’t want to have the mask completely on their face,” Osterman-Meisner said.

The countywide face mask order enacted Monday mandates people to wear face masks in public spaces with exceptions. Mouth coverings are required inside businesses or while waiting in line to enter any such space. People also must wear masks at doctor and veterinary offices, while using public transportation, in taxis and rideshare vehicles. All retail and commercial businesses must post signs notifying the public of the order. 

Enforcement, however, is a problem.

Carlos Gonzales, who works at the front desk at the 49er Inn and Suites, laments that there is no way to physically make a guest wear a mask. The hotel’s current occupancy is at 95 percent. All guests are provided masks, but some refuse to wear them. Gonzales says this does make him worry about his own safety, though plexiglass barriers at the front desk and his own mask offer some protection. He says he is more concerned about hotel clientele.

 “It upsets the guests who want everyone to be wearing masks,” Gonzales said.

According to Riclyn Betsinger, Teton County Sheriff’s Office communications manager, there have been 28 calls for service regarding the town’s mask ordinance since it went into effect July 3. Jackson Police Sgt. Michelle Weber said the majority of calls have been from customers complaining about businesses where employees or other customers were not abiding by the mask order. Usually, a simple phone conversation solves the problem. Only a handful of times have officers had to visit a business, and no citations have been issued so far.

 

“I tell them there are no guarantees in the Constitution that they get to buy a crappy T-shirt in Jackson Hole.” 

– Sean Love, Jackson Trading Company

 

Customers shopping on a recent summer day in Jackson Trading Company don the half-mask look. Some workers say they are frustrated that people walk into stores wearing masks and then make this adjustment after entering the store. (Robyn Vincent/KHOL)

 

Sean Love, owner of Jackson Trading Company, hasn’t called the police yet. But he has thought about it. Love was one of the business owners advocating for a mask ordinance to help him push back against antagonistic tourists who refused to wear masks. Since the ordinance went into effect, Love has seen more compliance, but not 100 percent. Recently a man yelled an expletive at one of Love’s employees when he was asked to wear a mask. Other customers argue that Love is infringing on their constitutional rights.

“I tell them there are no guarantees in the Constitution that they get to buy a crappy T-shirt in Jackson Hole,” he said.

Even with mask compliance, some business owners have struggled to keep pace with the surge of tourists descending on Jackson. Tootsy’s Massage and Day Spa owner, who goes by her first name, Dana, recently closed her business temporarily. She had reopened after the initial shutdown but closed again to regroup and strategize after a huge influx of customers recently.

Dana said the reason had to do with how the spa services work. There are several service providers at Tootsy’s, all making their own appointments. The spa had a “safe scheduling” plan in place for reopening, but they were soon flooded with appointments. The challenge of safely managing the number of people in the common areas became unwieldy.

“We were uncomfortable to be in our own space,” she said.

Dana was happy to be in demand but did not feel that she could properly accommodate and protect her customers. Tootsy’s will reopen next week with an updated scheduling and safety plan.

A spate of businesses closed in recent weeks citing health and safety concerns.

The Rose posted a notice on its Facebook page July 4 saying, “For the health and safety of our customers and staff, The Rose will be closed until further notice.” Callers to Creekside Market and Deli receive the message: “With an abundance of caution and in an attempt to keep our community healthy, Creekside is temporarily closed.”

Meanwhile, infection rates in the valley are drawing major concern from health officials. In Teton County, there were 929 cases per 100,000 people as of Friday. Even as Wyoming’s cases continue to climb, the per capita infection rate for the state pales in comparison to the valley’s at 396 cases per 100,000. What’s more, the county’s new daily cases position the valley in a category of its own. Jodie Pond, director of Teton County Public Health, noted that if Teton County was a state it would be No. 4 for daily new infections per 100,000 people. Only Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi have higher rates. “That gives me chills,” she said at a Friday community briefing. The backdrop to these numbers: the United States is now reporting nearly 4 million COVID-19 cases and more than 142,000 deaths.

 

If Teton County was a state it would be No. 4 for daily new infections per 100,000 people.

 

Workers at bars and restaurants that are still open hope sanitation protocols and masks will minimize their exposure. Younger adults in the service industry comprise many of the new cases of the novel coronavirus here. But Pond suspects that is largely attributed to those workers’ “full social lives” and not necessarily a result of their work environments. Her contact tracers have been inundated tracking down people that younger patients have been in contact with at parties and backyard barbecues, often upwards of 30, 40 or 50 folks, she said. 

Claire Caputi, 23, a server at The Wort Hotel’s Silver Dollar Bar and Grill, has a measured attitude to the risks involved with her job. “It is kind of scary, but it’s not as bad as some might think,” she said.

Caputi and other workmates wear masks their entire shifts, something she says she has become accustomed to and even stops noticing she has one on. “You find yourself leaving work with it on and driving home with it on, and realizing, ‘oh wait, I can take this off now.’”

This vigilance at work extends to the rest of her life. She says she has been more cautious about COVID-19 than some of her peers. She knows people who were cavalier and partied hard all through June, without masks or social distancing. However, it was workplace exposure that infected one of Caputi’s peers. A friend who works at Moe’s BBQ was exposed to a presymptomatic customer and tested positive last week. Now, the friend and her roommates are under quarantine. 

Caputi said the past two weeks have been the first time she has been viscerally aware of the virus’s proximity. “I don’t necessarily think that working at the Wort is going to be what exposes me,” she said. 

Silver Dollar customers are required to wear masks in the waiting areas and on the way to their tables, as outlined in local health orders. Once at their tables, diners can take their masks off. Caputi said the Silver Dollar follows sanitizing protocol for all items on tables, from menus to ketchup bottles. She washes her hands frequently. All of this makes her feel fairly safe.

 

“If you are eating out right now, you should be tipping at least 20 percent. We are working hard to keep customers safe. You’re choosing to go out to eat during a pandemic, and that’s very much a choice.”

– Claire Caputi, server at the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill

 

She sees a wide variety of customer behavior—some who are diligent about mask-wearing and some who seem not to care. She has not had any confrontations with diners over masks, rather, what bothers her is when people don’t tip. She hasn’t been stiffed more than usual but when it happens, the pain is acute.

“If you are eating out right now, you should be tipping at least 20 percent,” she said. “We are working hard to keep customers safe. You’re choosing to go out to eat during a pandemic, and that’s very much a choice.”

Caputi won’t be surprised if Jackson enacts another economic shutdown. “It would be the best thing for public health reasons,” she said. 

During the spring shutdown, she received unemployment benefits plus $600 per week as part of the CARES Act. But that unemployment expires this month. If Jackson has another economic shutdown, workers will be left with only unemployment compensation offered by the state. Wyoming caps weekly payments at $508. 

Gonzales said his need for steady income outweighs his concern about exposure to COVID. He is responsible for paying medical expenses for his mother in Mexico City. If Gonzales were laid off, he fears not only not being able to pay his own bills, but that his mother’s health would suffer.

“Time without a job is my worst fear.”

Robyn Vincent contributed reporting.

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About Meg Daly

A former community affairs director for KHOL, Meg is a freelance writer and arts professional. Her work has appeared in Planet Jackson Hole, Homestead, Jackson Hole News&Guide, The Oregonian, and other publications.

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