In Grand Junction, Faces (Some Masked, Others Not) Return To Main Street As Coronavirus Rules Relax

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Stina Sieg/CPR News
Conner Ivie works the cash register at Summit Canyon Mountaineering, where paddle boards have been going gangbusters since Mesa County allowed retail to reopen.

It wasn’t too long ago that Grand Junction’s gently winding, historic Main Street looked more like a closed movie set than the vibrant center of town.

It was so empty that even the coveted free parking spots sat vacant. The cardboard Elvis looking out from the shuttered '50s diner kept watch over the silent sidewalks from behind a mask made out of a napkin. 

But with the blessing of the state health department, everyday life has come slowly chugging back in recent weeks, providing the rest of Colorado with a preview of what may become the new normal. People are again strolling into antique shops, and groups lingering on the cafe patios. Some, but not many, wear masks.

Elise Fero was grabbing an outdoor coffee with a friend while wearing a pink, flowered mask her mom made from an old pillowcase. 

“It’s nice to have a face mask that’s not ugly to be wearing around, since it’s part of my outfit now,” said the sunny 18-year-old. 

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Elise Fero, 18, lives in Grand Junction and still tries to stay home for the most part, even as Mesa County has been reopening its economy at an accelerated pace. She finds the uncertainty of this time “kind of scary.”

Fero said, for the most part, she’s still staying home, even as Mesa County’s economy reopens at a pace faster than the rest of the state.

“It’s kind of nice to have it open,” Fero said, “but it’s kind of scary at the same time.”

While restaurants across much of Colorado were able to resume dine-in service this week, Mesa County took that step in early May. Gyms reopened then, too, and within a few weeks pools and bars also got the green light.

Bill Clarke, 81, is happy to see it all. Sitting outside a bagel shop on Main, he stressed that while he understands the danger of the virus, he’s more worried about “progressives” using it as a way to curtail personal rights.

But more than anything, he’s worried about the economy.

“I think we need to get back to normal,” he said. “Business as usual, employment and income and usual for everybody.”

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Bill Clarke, from Fruita, wants to see all of Mesa County open. While the 81-year-old acknowledges the danger of the virus, he’s more concerned about the economy.

While that is still one tall order, some businesses have come bouncing back. A few blocks away at Summit Canyon Mountaineering, a gear store, they’ve had a steady stream of customers. Purchases of paddleboards, in particular, are way up, perhaps because it’s an activity that inherently requires social distancing.

“It’s been crazy,” manager Nick West said. “It’s been crazy busy.” 

He adds that it helps that the nearby REI is still only offering curbside pickup, as well as that visitors have been coming into town from parts of the state under stricter lock-downs than Mesa County. 

“They're extremely happy that we're open. We've only been getting positive feedback from customers on everything,” he said. 

The health department is focused on education, not enforcement.

It’s the kind of success story Jeff Kuhr is trying to foster as the director of Mesa County Public Health.

“I've said this my whole career: Public health is a balance between the community's health and the economy,” he explained.

Mesa County has been able to reopen so thoroughly in large part because the virus hasn’t really taken hold here. Just over 50 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, and there have been no deaths. At this point, basically all businesses can open their doors, as long as they implement social distancing and extra cleaning.

“Everyone that can show us that they're willing to do it by implementing those best practices, want to give them a shot,” Kuhr said. 

His health department has also taken a different approach than many of its counterparts when it comes to dealing with businesses that don’t comply with its rules. Up the interstate in Garfield County, Shooters Grill reopened in defiance of the local health department and was temporarily shut down. And in Douglas County, a restaurant that opened on Mother’s Day, had its business license indefinitely suspended by the state.

Mesa County has tried to avoid that. When a local water park reopened against regulations, Kuhr’s staff attempted to work with the owner. Those talks eventually broke down and the park remained open. But Kuhr thinks that sometimes customers can have more power than officials. 

“If we're not penalizing people, I still trust in the general public who won't frequent a place because it might be higher risk,” he said.

In the last few weeks, public health staff have visited nearly 100 Mesa County businesses to give guidance on reopening. But not all are ready to take that step.

Two of downtown’s best-known restaurants, Bin 707 and Taco Party, will keep their dining rooms closed for now. 

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Josh Niernberg (left), who owns two of downtown Grand Junction’s best-known eateries, has decided to keep both dining rooms closed due to safety and other concerns. Above, he boxes up to-go orders at Bin 707 alongside Heather Coulter (center) and Gabriella Mingino.

Josh Niernberg, who owns both restaurants, worries that if he reopened Bin 707 in particular, it would be filled with its usual mix of locals and tourists, creating a “difficult environment” to control.

“It’s a risk for everybody involved,” he said. 

Instead, Niernberg is choosing to reinvent how he does things, stopping lunch at one of the restaurants and launching a new to-go burger business. When Bin 707 does reopen for sit-down dining, he plans to have all those seats outside. Weathering the pandemic has not been easy, but for Niernberg, who hasn’t laid anyone off, it has offered some opportunities.

“I'm just trying to take this as positively as I can, and use it as much as I can as a way to make it better for all of us, knowing full well that we definitely could be much worse off than we are,” he said. 

A relaunched book club shows how things have changed.

Mesa County residents can count themselves lucky to have been so little touched by the virus so far. But no one knows what’s ahead. So as glimpses of our old lives start to re-emerge, they really do look different.

The book group I belong to recently held its first in-person meeting since February. We used to pack into a house and share a potluck. This time, however, it was just a half a dozen women in a park, with separate blankets and separate snacks

I asked the small crew how it felt to be there. One woman replied that she is a fan of the new format and that we should continue “outdoor book club,” pandemic or not. Another said it was nice to see people’s faces, even though everyone had been invited to wear a mask if they’d like.

Stina Sieg/CPR News
As everyday activities start to resume in Mesa County, many look different, like this monthly book club that usually meets at someone’s home. Now, it’s morphed into a small group in a park, including (from left)Sonya Vasconcellos, Heather McPherson and Grace Logsdon.

For Grace Logsdon, it was good to be together, in person, even while still a bit apart. That’s actually been her approach to socializing throughout the pandemic.

“This whole time, anyone who was willing to just come over and have a porch visit outside, has just felt so humanizing,” she said. 

That was especially true when the shock of losing so many interactions was first settling in. 

“So I’m a big fan of in-person, at-a-distance visiting,” she went on. “Nothing harmful about that, and it gets you out of your little bubble of a world.” 

In Mesa County, and the rest of Colorado, that’s what reopening really comes down to: People will continue to expand their personal worlds only as they feel comfortable, even as official rules continue to ease.