After state lifts coronavirus restrictions, businesses bring new techniques, perspectives

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Missouri businesses were faced with difficult choices. Many had to temporarily close their doors, and some of those closures became permanent. Others had to transition to new ways to generate revenue.

As the state began lifting restrictions, many were able to return to business, but with new ways of doing things. As the pandemic continues, these new norms remain in place, and it is possible that things won’t return to business as usual for some time to come.

In the first few days after Gov. Mike Parson lifted statewide restrictions last month, here’s what conditions looked like for a variety of businesses in cities not subject to local coronavirus orders:

Missouri Ridge Distillery – Branson

This family-owned distillery, which produces small batches of signature spirits, was in a unique position at the onset of the pandemic.

“I am an anomaly in as much as the governor had declared alcohol essential initially, so we never had to close our doors,” said Greg Pope, master distiller at Missouri Ridge Distillery. “But fortunately, we were able to transition from distilled beverage spirits to food-grade hand sanitizer.”

The hand sanitizer Missouri Ridge Distillery started producing due to the coronavirus has been distributed across multiple states. | Courtesy of Missouri Ridge Distillery

In the first two and a half months after that transition, the distillery produced nearly 47,000 gallons of hand sanitizer, which has been distributed in Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas. The pivot from producing spirits to sanitizer was relatively simple, requiring only a few additional ingredients and no new machinery.

The distillery continued to see customers while statewide restrictions were in place with limits on occupancy. Between the indoor and outdoor seating, occupancy was limited to 10 people, including staff members, prior to the lifting of restrictions. As the state has entered Phase 2 of its reopening plan, things have begun to return to business as usual.

“Since the governor removed the last of the restrictions/regulations, we’ve noticed a marked increase in tourism,” Pope said.

The distillery is getting back to normal operations, with a new batch of bourbon whiskey in the works. Still, the business remains prepared in the event of a resurgence of the virus.

“I’ve still got about 4,000 gallons of hand sanitizer waiting to be bottled,” Pope said. “In the event that we get hit with a second wave of COVID-19, we’ve done everything we can to be prepared for it.”

The Dutton Family Theater – Branson

The pandemic hit the entertainment industry particularly hard, and performers were forced to adapt to the temporary closure of their venues. The Dutton Family Theater features members of the Dutton family who sing, dance and play music. It has been a popular entertainment venue in Branson for many years.

It was one of the first venues to reopen and begin having shows after the governor began to lift restrictions on the state, with the first happening on May 16.

“We didn’t know what to expect, whether we would have people in the audience, because Branson looked like a ghost town for a couple months there,” said Sheila Dutton. She and her husband, Dean, founded the theater and own several other associated businesses.

The initial shows sold out, with more people seeking tickets than occupancy would allow. Currently, the theater is operating at about 30% capacity, and it maintains separation of 6 feet between all groups of guests. Each group is individually led through ticketing and concessions, then escorted to their seats before the show. All staff members wear masks, and all surfaces in the venue are sanitized regularly, according to the theater’s website.

“I think people, while they’re willing to come out, they just love being reassured that they’re going to be OK while they’re at the show,” Dutton said.

The Dutton Family Theater in Branson has reopened live shows, but it also has branched into streaming video of some shows during the pandemic. | Courtesy of the Dutton Family Theater

One of the most advantageous features of the theatre is an exhaust system that can replace all of the air in the auditorium in a matter of minutes. It was installed to filter smoke produced from an old act involving fire dancers.

“We can just suck out all that air in a few minutes and have all fresh air and now, interestingly, that’s probably the most important thing you can do,” Dutton said.

The temporary closure of the theater allowed the Duttons to branch out into new entertainment mediums that they had not previously tried.

“We’ve done some creative things,” Dutton said. “We started doing a livestream of 10 people at a time every week. That’s caught on, and now we have followers all over the world.”

In addition to the livestream, they have also premiered a television series on RFD-TV. “The Duttons Through the Years” covers the history of their 30-year career in entertainment.

Demand in the past few weeks has brought the theater up to five stage performances a week. It is unclear what the fall and the Christmas season will bring, but some of the older guests who generally vacation via large tour bus groups may not make an appearance this season.

“We just hope that we have enough people coming that we’ll be able to cover all the bills and all the employees,” Dutton said. “That is my biggest desire, for our families and employees to have enough, then the rest doesn’t matter. We can make a profit later.”

Dick’s 5 & 10 – Branson

Since reopening to the public two months ago, Dick’s 5 & 10 has seen marked increases in the number of customers coming to visit. The store is a staple of the Branson community, supplying customers with nostalgic gifts and unique souvenirs for nearly 60 years. As the weeks progress, the store is seeing more customers than its occupancy limits can allow.

“We are seeing it get better every single day,” co-owner Steve Hartley said. “We at Dick’s 5 & 10 are taking baby steps to reopening.”

The retailer allows only a set number of people to enter at one time and offers 22 hand sanitizing stations placed around the building for customers to use. For those waiting outside to enter, the store provides complimentary masks, water and candy, while combating the summer heat with strategically placed fans to make the wait as comfortable as possible.

Dick’s 5&10 in Branson has taken precautions in reopening, including limiting the number of customers that can be in the store. | Courtesy of Dick’s 5&10

“We’re just very grateful to be open, and we want to make sure that the customers know that they not only get that one-of-a-kind Dick’s 5 & 10 experience, but they can feel safe and healthy while they’re in our store,” Hartley said.

As the summer goes on, Hartley expects the amount of customers to continue to increase. The store sees sales edge closer to pre-pandemic levels with every week it’s open.

“I think summer is just going to get better as people get used to being back out,” Hartley said.

Sweet Smoke BBQ – Jefferson City

Even before the statewide restrictions were lifted, Sweet Smoke BBQ was seeing an increase in sales. At the onset of the pandemic, both Jefferson City locations of the barbecue restaurant remained operational by pivoting their sales to pick-up orders.

“We’re fortunate that the food we do lends itself well to carry-out,” owner John Biggs said.

As restrictions began to loosen and eventually lift, the restaurant saw many of its patrons return to dine in. All of the original seating has been restored, though the business continues to take precautions.

All servers still wear face coverings, and the cashier remains behind a plexiglass shield. The signature bottles of barbecue sauce do not yet reside on the tables as before, and silverware continues to be disposable.

“Proceeding with a bit of caution is always a good plan in these times,” Biggs said.

Ana Marie’s Bridal – Jefferson City

After being closed for most of the month of April, Ana Marie’s Bridal welcomed back eager customers still in search of wedding gowns. April is typically a busy month, so the store saw an influx of customers when it reopened near the beginning of May.

“What we’re running into with brides is a lot of people who would have been shopping in April but couldn’t,” owner Wendy Gladbach said, “so we’ve got a lot of last-minute brides trying to find wedding gowns for fall weddings.”

The store is continuing to take precautions, asking brides to come with only two to three guests and maintaining social distancing policies. June is generally a slower month, and Gladbach expects business for the rest of the summer to mirror that of previous years.

“I don’t see our summer being any different than any other summer,” Gladbach said.

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