HAMILTON, Mont. — Outside River Rising Bakery sits an older gentleman, his face uncovered. He’s here every morning, greeting customers as he drinks his coffee and reads. Inside, people mill about, waiting to order. A group of moms chat at a corner table.
The employees wear masks, but patrons are not required to. Most don’t. It feels almost normal. As if the pandemic had never happened.
Half a block away in Hamilton, at Big Creek Coffee Roasters, most customers don’t go inside; instead they wait to order at a makeshift to-go window. There are a lot of strollers and Lululemon tights, and most people in the line are wearing a mask. If anyone did go inside, wearing one would be mandatory.
One Montana block, two small businesses — and two different decisions about asking customers to wear masks.
This summer, the governor, Steve Bullock, mandated face coverings in public spaces to combat a spike in Covid-19 cases. But the sheriff in Hamilton, backed up by the Ravalli County commissioners, elected not to enforce the order, saying individual rights took priority. That decision left small businesses stuck in the middle of a months-long national conflict over mask wearing as they try to keep staff safe and their doors open without alienating customers.
For the owner of River Rising, Nicki Ransier, the commissioners’ decision made her life easier: “It kind of took some pressure off of us, because we’re not having that confrontation with our customers when they walk in.”
Before the governor’s order, Ms. Ransier asked her staff to wear masks, but a few customers berated her employees — some of whom are in high school — over the decision. One customer told the staff that they were “bending the knee to tyranny” by following Mr. Bullock’s order.
Other patrons wanted Ms. Ransier to flatly require masks for all and install costly plexiglass barriers. She felt she couldn’t please anyone, so she decided her policy would focus on what she could control: employees. She would let customers choose, but ask her 14 workers to wear masks even though it can be hot and miserable.
“We have a lot of older customers,” Ms. Ransier said. “And in my heart, I was just like, ‘What if I were to get Bob — the man who sits out front every day — or someone sick?’ I would just feel horrible.”
But the commissioners’ move frustrated Randy Lint, the owner of Big Creek Coffee Roasters. He thought the governor’s order would put an end to mask conflicts. Instead, he said, the commissioners’ decision “puts us at odds with customers.”
“Dealing with fallout from stressed customers has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic,” Mr. Lint said.
He’s thankful for the to-go window and the reprieve it offers — at least while the weather is nice. He added a propane heater to extend the outdoor season, but once winter hits and customers come indoors, he knows his policy will be an issue again. Still, he said, he can’t risk having any of his seven staff members contract Covid-19. If one did, he would have to shut down for two weeks so everyone could quarantine. Mr. Lint said he wasn’t sure he could survive that experience emotionally.
“The danger is that it will all crush my spirit,” he said.
It’s a fear based in reality: Down the block, Naps Grill, one of the town’s busiest restaurants, recently chose to close temporarily after several workers tested positive for the coronavirus.
Complicating the choice for business owners and customers alike is that the pandemic has been slow to affect Ravalli County, which is part of the Bitterroot Valley, an approximately 100-mile strip of isolated southwestern Montana. The county is 2,400 square miles — nearly as large as Delaware — but it has had just over 300 cases of the coronavirus and four deaths from Covid-19 since March. More than one-quarter of those cases have cropped up in the past week and caused several local schools to shut down for multiple days. And with the area’s reliance on tourists for hunting season and an influx of pandemic refugees from more populous states, anything could happen this fall.
The town, with just under 5,000 residents, is home to Rocky Mountain Laboratories, where researchers are trying to develop a vaccine for Covid-19. It is also the county seat, luring many to shop and do business, and is a gateway to serious trout streams and other outdoor recreation. That means everyone is mixing on Main Street: white collar, blue collar, wealthy ranchers, scientists, lifelong bartenders, multigeneration residents, tourists, hunters, kayakers, conservatives and liberals.
There is an uneasy truce between newcomers with high-paying jobs who are looking for the Montana lifestyle and longtime Bitterrooters, whose wages have been slow to rise even as the median home price in the county has risen 60 percent since January 2017. The longtimers feel pushed out.
“We are scrupulously apolitical,” Mr. Lint said, who has lived in Hamilton for 25 years. “It’s a survival mechanism. We have a lot of old Bitterrooters who wouldn’t come in here otherwise. We just try to give a good drink and kindness.”
That’s the refrain up and down the block. Most owners, whatever their politics, keep their business’ social media and public statements staunchly neutral. But masks have become a very public symbol onto which people imprint their own assumptions.
“It’s quite exhausting,” said Shawn Wathen, a co-owner of Chapter One Book Store, which is cater-corner from Big Creek. “If we could go one day and not have to talk about masks — that would be just quite astonishing.”
“The governor’s order was supposed to handle that for us so that we could focus on staying open as a business, right?” added the other owner, Mara Lynn Luther. “And that’s so frustrating.”
Chapter One has been a staple in Hamilton since 1974, and both Ms. Luther and Mr. Wathen were employees before becoming the owners. They jokingly call themselves bartenders — because customers bring them their biggest problems. It’s a real exercise in trust, for example, when someone asks them to order a title on mental health or how to save their marriage. They love the hours they spend talking about books and big ideas with shoppers.
Recently, an elderly woman came in and lashed out when she was told that the store required masks. Instead of kicking out her longtime customer or using harsh words, Ms. Luther asked if the woman was OK. The two chatted, and Ms. Luther learned that the woman, unable to see facial expressions, was genuinely frightened to see people in masks. Now when the woman comes in, Ms. Luther said, she masks without complaint.
“Do we always share the same views and values as our whole community? No,” Ms. Luther said. “But for years we’ve just kept these lines of communication open and really made an effort to never make someone feel like we shut the door on them.”
Across the street at Big Sky Candy, the owners, Michele DeGroot and her daughter, Marlena Fehr, made a different decision: They are not asking patrons to mask while browsing the chocolates, truffles, toffees, fudge and caramels. The pair have been making the goodies from scratch for 19 years, and they love having people who came in as kids bring their own children now.
That community connection is partly why they decided not to enforce the governor’s mask mandate: They didn’t want anyone to feel bad in a place that is supposed to bring joy. So instead of the “masks required” sign, a note on their front door says they won’t be enforcing the order and adds, in part: “BASICALLY, it’s up to you. You do what you feel is right for you. We will not judge you. The rest of the world does enough judging. We don’t need that here. We love each and every one of you.”
That’s how Ms. Ransier of River Rising feels about her customers: She loves them all. She cries when talking about how much they mean to her, and how Covid helped show her how much the cafe meant to them. When the pandemic hit, she said, her “old curmudgeon regulars” were the first to step up and offer cash donations to help keep her afloat.
“I didn’t even think they really cared, as long as we have their pastry,” she said. “But those ranchers, you know, they aren’t going to be wearing their heart on their sleeve. There’s always something good that comes out of everything.”
It’s bittersweet because she recently sold the business to her landlord, Fenn Nelson. The two had been in discussions since before the pandemic, and the timing finally worked out.
So far, Mr. Nelson is not planning any significant changes to the menu, the staff or the mask policy. At his other business, the microbrewery Higherground Brewing Company, he strongly encourages customers to wear masks inside but doesn’t make staff insist.
“At one level, I feel like I should push for more for masks,” Mr. Nelson said. “But on the other side, I feel like, at what cost? For us to survive, we need everyone as customers.”