News & Features

A Service Industry Rollercoaster

The Flathead service industry faces a host of challenges this summer, from masks to COVID-19 positive employees to fewer tourists

As soon as Gov. Steve Bullock issued a mask mandate on July 15, Backslope Brewing owner Carla Fisher made sure to personally stand outside of her establishment in Columbia Falls to remind customers to mask up for the first few days until they were accustomed to the new statewide rule.

While Fisher says she had one incident where a customer accused her of discrimination, most have been compliant with the rule, and a simple reminder has resulted in non-issues at the brewery.

Mask requirements are just one of the issues that Fisher and others in the service industry have had to navigate in the last few months since bars and restaurants were shut down and then reopened with ever-changing rules. Since Backslope reopened for dine-in service in the last few months, Fisher says revenue is only slightly down from last year.

“We are definitely noticing some level of business increasing and more and more people in the area,” Fisher said. “And it feels like the same level of business that we would see in a regular summer.”

Fisher says that’s likely because tourists are concentrated on the west side of the park, and with spaced-out tables, longer waits for larger parties and a high demand for takeout, she and her staff are staying busy.

Kevin Gartland, the executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce, is seeing a similar trend in Whitefish this summer.

“The general consensus is it’s a slow summer by Whitefish standards, but I’ve talked to folks in retail and restaurants and they’re doing fairly well,” he said.

While visitor volume is down, Gartland has noticed more people taking long road trips rather than flying. Glacier Park International Airport saw 11,854 passenger arrivals in June this year compared to 44,277 during the same month in 2019.

Gartland estimates there are roughly half as many visitors, putting strain on hotels that are not running at full capacity.

Revenue is down roughly 50% at the Izaak Walton Inn in Essex, according to Holly DuMay, the director of sales, marketing and retail. Since Glacier National Park reopened in early June, DuMay has seen significantly more traffic, but many customers are concerned and confused about the Blackfeet Indian Reservation closure.

Many weddings at the inn were postponed until next year. DuMay also says she’s hearing a lot of frustrations with customers because of limited access in Glacier, and restrictions in the area.

But DuMay says customers have typically been compliant and respectful of Montana’s mask policy.

Gartland, too, has seen a relatively positive visitor response when it comes to face coverings.

“Tourists are quick to pick up mask protocols,” he said. “They all come from areas with stricter regulations.”

While the mask policy hasn’t been too much of an issue for most businesses in the Flathead, a number of bars and restaurants have had COVID-19 positive employees in recent weeks, according Flathead City-County Health Department officials.

With service-industry employees in tight quarters with each other and coming into contact with many people throughout the day, health officials say the volume of potential close contact exposure is high.

While there’s no protocol for bars and restaurants to follow besides 14-day isolation in the event of a positive case, Flathead City-County Health Officer Tamalee Robinson says if there were an outbreak of multiple employees, the health department would most likely ask the business to conduct a deep cleaning. However, Robinson says these instances would be situational, depending on the establishment’s size and employee volume.

A number of local establishments have temporarily shut down after employees tested positive.

“You have people working in multiple confined spaces,” Garland said. “When one person goes down, it triggers a whole series for business owners.”

maggie@flatheadbeacon.com

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