CHEYENNE – Uncharted. Unprecedented. Uncertain.
These are the words people across Wyoming – and the country – have used to describe the feeling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the past week, the virus has caused the local school districts to announce their closure, along with bars, restaurants and other businesses.
People of all ages are staying in, working from the comfort of their homes if they can, and practicing a form of isolation that experts call social distancing.
Health officials have identified at least 26 cases of the novel coronavirus in Wyoming, and shutting down pockets of the state, along with people going into self-isolation, is all part of a coordinated attempt to stop the spread of the virus and spare as many lives as possible.
For several people in Cheyenne, these precautions have completely upended their day-to-day routines – and created a new normal.
There’s one industry — the wedding industry — with an especially strong dependence on set-in-stone dates. Clients eagerly circle said day in their planners, post the six digits next to heart emojis on their social media pages and are gifted everything from koozies to cheese boards engraved with the special date.
Several of these events are currently in danger of being canceled or changed (if they haven’t already been) thanks to concerns surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
Melanie Silvernagel is the owner of Perfectly Planned Events & More, a business that often focuses on weddings, and has the potential of taking a particularly hard financial hit due to the current pandemic.
“I am fortunate in that all of my weddings for this year seem to be later – my earliest is June 3,” Silvernagel said over the phone while working from home. “But I do have an event that’s still tentatively scheduled for April 15, a magic show … How much of a hit will I take if I give refunds on deposits? And we have no idea how long it will take to bounce back.”
Silvernagel said one of the biggest challenges right now is the uncertainty of it all. How bad is it going to get? How long will it be until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s safe to gather in large groups again?
She’s not going to get answers to these questions anytime soon, so Silvernagel is choosing to do what most people are: take it one day at a time. Although many organizers are canceling their events, she’s holding off on doing anything about her April 15 Black Magick 2020 Tour performance because she doesn’t want to end up both letting people down and losing money.
“I follow other wedding and event planners on social media, and every one of us is in limbo,” she said. “People are being really open with how they’re handling everything, and none of the ones I’ve seen have been jumping to things preemptively – we’re waiting for the next set of guidelines to come and then going from there.”
As for her clients, Silvernagel said she has a couple brides with early summer weddings who are nervous, but other than offering reassurance, her main response is encouraging them to not sign any more contracts. Contracts with wedding vendors are always negotiable, she continued, and right now it’s important that all of them have a clause about situations like this.
“If there is a restriction on guest counts and they can’t meet their minimums, how does that work? It’s about being conscious,” she said. “They need to read through that contract and move ahead as planned, but with caution.”
She’s also encouraging her clients to hold off as long as they can. Waiting until closer to the RSVP date to make any drastic changes will allow for her guests to know what the latest CDC recommendations and government mandates are, so then guests can be sure that whatever the decision is, it was made keeping the latest developments in mind.
As much as she’s personally affected, Silvernagel also has a large place in her heart for all the couples who are going through the stress and anxiety of essentially replanning a whole wedding.
To help, Silvernagel is offering some of her services completely free of charge.
“I will take on the vendor conversations – it’s easier for me because I don’t have the emotions attached to the day,” she said, explaining that she will handle contract details and rescheduling logistics. “My heart is absolutely breaking for every couple who is wondering what to do about their wedding day, so I’ve put that out there.”
Life is stressful enough right now, Silvernagel continued, explaining that she no longer brings her children to the grocery store with her – not only for their health, but to avoid the anxiety of seeing so many shelves without food. She wants to do whatever it takes to ease the minds of both clients and non-clients alike.
As for Silvernagel’s day-to-day routine, the biggest adjustment has been working from home with her two children around.
“I’ve never had a coworker come and sit in my lap and start demanding peanut butter and jelly,” she said with a laugh.
But like everyone else, she’s doing the best she can.
“I continue to work for my current clients, and it’s a weird limbo, because I’m still moving ahead and helping people plan weddings in July/August as normal, while helping brides earlier in the summer navigate all this – it’s a weird panic/no panic situation,” she said. “(We’ll) Just wait and see how this evolves.”
The Yin Yoga class Jill Lovato taught Friday afternoon was different than the one she taught the week before.
The lights were still dim and the music still tranquil, but Lovato, who owns Blossom Yoga on 21st Street in downtown Cheyenne, taught into a video camera against the backdrop of an empty studio.
“We kind of saw this coming, based on things that were happening in the country,” said Lovato, who last week began virtually delivering yoga classes in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.
She made her decision Sunday, around the same time Laramie County School District 1 announced it was closing until early April.
But she wanted to adapt to the situation.
“I have a small business, and I don’t want to lose it,” said Lovato, who offered the first live online yoga class earlier last week via the videoconferencing app Zoom. Taking business online is how many people across Cheyenne and the country are salvaging courses, meetings and happy hours in the era of COVID-19.
It’s not ideal, said Lovato, whose “preference is always to be in a physical community at the studio with people practicing.” What’s more, she said, “it’s been a hustle for me to figure out this technology” to deliver the virtual classes, which people can pay to access live or in the archive. But, she said, it’s “what we have to work with,” and “right now is a time where we really need our practice.”
Reformatting service is one way to carry on with business in light of both U.S. President Donald Trump and Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon’s warnings to limit social gatherings and stay home.
“It feels really weird,” Lovato said about what it’s like speaking into a headset, projecting her voice out through a Wi-Fi signal. “As a teacher, I don’t generally do the practice. I watch the bodies in the room and cue based on what I’m seeing. I don’t typically plan my classes either – I wait to read the room. I can’t do either of those things without them in there.”
Initially, people have responded well to consuming their daily yoga instruction through video.
“We had more people join us than would have fit in the studio,” Lovato said about the 45 people who registered for one of the classes. “So far, it’s going better than expected.”
Even a few of her college friends who live out of state have signed up because “now they can.”
Lovato said she’ll continue teaching yoga online for as long as needed, and is already prophesying that “this is going to change things permanently” for her business.
Blossom Yoga is offering daily yoga classes online. Starting next week, it will offer a yoga course for children, as well as a weekly meditation class. To learn more and sign up for classes, visit http://cheyenne.blossomyogastudio.com/index.php.
About two weeks ago, before there were any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wyoming, Joseph Forscher was already helping make significant changes to best serve his company’s clients.
Forscher is the chief clinical officer at Peak Wellness Center, which offers treatment and care for those living with addiction, depression and other mental health difficulties. A worldwide pandemic is an unsettling time for everyone, let alone those with other health issues, so he and the rest of the center leadership team formed a task force to determine the best plan of action.
“Our immediate task was to figure out how to stay relevant and safe for our clients, so the first thing I did was reach out to clinic directors – we have four, one in each of four counties – and asked them to start putting together lists of clients most at risk,” Forscher said. “(We) had case managers start reaching out to them and put together a script for that, checking in and making sure they are all set for their basic needs, food, medication, etc., and that quickly expanded to calling all our clients across the agency.”
The issue that soon emerged, Forscher said, was the increased danger of community spread via in-person therapy services. The task force decided to start taking the temperatures of people still coming in as a precautionary screening process, but that wasn’t helpful to those who didn’t feel comfortable leaving their homes.
So, the task force decided it would be best to expand telehealth services to provide uninterrupted care for clients in its several coverage areas. The first step in doing so, Forscher said, was taking inventory of the laptops every center had on hand. The company’s IT department also sent out requirements for clinicians’ home laptops, and if they met those requirements, they were allowed to deliver online therapy sessions from their respective homes via individual Zoom licenses quickly obtained for every clinician.
“I think the biggest change for us is in our mindset,” Forscher said. “Although we’ve been delivering telehealth services for years, it’s been almost exclusively with our medication providers, psychiatrists and nurse practitioners, so to expand that concept to delivering teletherapy was a big change for us. But once we started to do it and got past some of the initial challenges with the technology piece, I’ve been very surprised and very proud of the team. It’s seamless at this point, and we’ve only been doing it for less than two weeks.”
Offering sessions online is quite different than an in-person interaction, Forscher admitted, so the company led briefings to present clinicians with a checklist of how to start these unique conversations. They also were taught how to help their clients be more comfortable with the new scenario – one that Forscher hopes won’t be necessary for much longer, but he also plans to make available to clients after the pandemic as another option.
“If our clients don’t feel comfortable, the treatment we provide will be less meaningful,” he said. “We’ve (always) been in the business of giving basic needs and giving people what they need to feel safe … but every day is a new challenge, and every day when I meet that challenge, it feels good.”
At first glance, it’s business as usual at Western Vista Federal Credit Union in Cheyenne.
Outside the building, customers are still rolling through the drive-thru, depositing checks. Bank tellers are still sitting behind the windows, ready to process the money.
Inside the building, loan officers are still taking appointments. But there are subtle signs that the deadly COVID-19 virus has changed working conditions at the credit union.
More cleaning supplies. Fewer staff. Building entry by appointment only.
Bank tellers use a cleaning wipe to sanitize the plastic tubes each time a customer uses it to deposit currency at the drive-thru, the only space the general public can interact with staff.
“We have people come in and out of our branch every day for transactions that could be done through the drive-thru,” said Lorrell Walter, senior vice president of marketing for the credit union. “Now we’re mandating it.”
The credit union has also split its in-office staffing into shifts.
It’s allowing employees to work from home every other week to thin the number of people in the office at one time, which could prevent the spread of the virus.
“Our staff is our greatest resource. Which is why we’re doing our best to alternate folks in and out of the office,” said Walter, who’s assured staff that regardless, they will continue to receive their full paychecks. “We don’t want to put someone like a teller – who can’t do their job from home – in a bad situation because of a decision we’ve made for the safety of our staff and customers.”
That’s one of the reasons why Evann McCarrick, who is a new bank teller at the branch, is glad she’s no longer working full-time at Olive Garden, which recently announced it would be offering only curbside food pickup during the pandemic.
“If I was trying to serve tables and make enough money to pay my bills on my own it would be really stressful,” McCarrick said.
But not everyone has that kind of reassurance.
“A lot of my friends who work in the mall, for the time being a lot of them have restricted hours,” McCarrick said. “I worry about them.”