Local business owners and employees said though they are still wary of COVID-19 and experience concerns about the lack of masking in the Norman community, they are pleased by a return to a sense of normalcy outside the pandemic.
After OU’s return to fully in-person classes and the city’s lift on mask mandates, many restaurant owners in Norman said they have seen increased business. However, concern for cases of COVID-19 persists within business settings.
According to the city of Norman coronavirus update page, COVID-19 cases did spike in the fall.
“Even so, this was nothing compared to last year,” Ward 7 Councilmember Stephen Holman said. “This year, I felt less concerned about it as we were this time last year, I think, in large part, because of the vaccine, because the testimony we've heard from our local medical professionals in Norman Regional Hospital and Medical Center have been that people (who) are vaccinated are not ending up in the hospital, and are not dying.”
Stephen Swanson, the co-owner of Lazy Circles Brewing, said his business is seeing a lot more customers since OU’s return to in-person classes. Although he has some apprehensions about maskless crowds, he said knowing vaccines are available gives him peace of mind.
“I'm going to be more concerned until my daughter is old enough to get (vaccinated),” Swanson said. “I don't want anyone getting sick, but at the same time, vaccines are more available to more of the population. Some of my stress levels go away because I'm not responsible for anybody else's personal choices.”
Brooke Rood, the owner of charcuterie business and Equity Brewing Company partner Forage & Gather Boards, said Equity has seen an increase in business since the beginning of the school year. Rood had some worries over the lack of masking, especially since she also has a young daughter.
“I get more business because a lot of parents want to order charcuterie from on campus and they're having their usual parties and get-togethers, so it kind of pays off for me that everyone is back in school and getting together again,” Rood said. “I'm just kind of in the handoff (business) like, ‘Here's your board, enjoy your party.’ (But) I hope you're being safe and monitoring if you have any symptoms and hopefully wearing a mask and those sorts of things.”
The Oklahoma Office of Workforce Development website says 9,700 businesses in Oklahoma temporarily or permanently discontinued activities or closed between March 2020 and January 2021. Since then, businesses have now returned to providing their full services without any COVID-19 precautions required by law.
Pinkberry employee and nutrition sophomore Kendra Evans said although masks are not required at her workplace, returning to work after a pandemic has added a new level of discomfort when it comes to customer service.
“It used to be like you could treat everybody the same — and you should still treat everyone the same — but it’s just like you don't know how comfortable they feel with you talking to them without a mask on,” Evans said. “So it’s just a little bit different on the customer service side of it, I would say.”
Swanson said, with the full return of the OU Norman campus and full capacity football games, his brewery has seen more business compared to last year, but the new crowds have highlighted his appreciation for the outdoor seating his business had.
“We’re just kind of waiting for the hammer to drop, if you will, in a lot of ways. But it's looking really positive, as we thought maybe after the first football game or second football game, that maybe we'd start to see a really high drive and numbers and services,” Swanson said. “And yes that has increased. ... It's probably also helped (how) we've done things like we have outdoor seating where you don't have to come inside at all. We try to do more things to help people feel comfortable being in a drinking situation.”
Rood said, coming out of the thick of the pandemic, she is also grateful for the open atmosphere Equity Brewing Company's outdoor spacing provides since it allows space for large groups and better air circulation.
Holman said the city council is keeping track of CDC guidelines and encouraging residents to mask and vaccinate, but said they have not seen the need for a city-wide mandate again.
Even without a mask mandate, Rood said she thinks it is safer to mask, especially in schools and businesses.
“If you're a young person, you feel kind of invincible to COVID because it doesn't affect us in horrible graphics, but the point is that you can get the high-risk group sick if you get it,” Rood said. “I would like to see more of (masking) on campus with as much understanding as I can give to them, knowing that it's hard, and they're young and it’s their life.”
Swanson said although he appreciates the safety of masking, he does not enforce masks at his business because he doesn’t want to deter customers and risk compromising the fun, inviting environment he wants within his brewery.
“If you’re enforcing masks, then you're forced to take this stance, and you become like, as I would say — for lack of a better term — the face mask police,” Swanson said. “There’s some people that don't want to go to your business because you tell them to wear a mask, right, so we kind of forced us to take a stance on something that became a political issue that we didn't see as political.”
Though business owners do encourage masking, Rood, Swanson and the student employees have all said they are glad to be back to work and in a somewhat normal setting.
“We're still very concerned that some things may continue on as they are for a while, so that's a big concern for us, but … this year has been so much better than last year,” Swanson said. “It was a hard time (last year) being a depressed business owner, and so we've been happy again (seeing people back) and that’s nice.”