For the past month, Dane County has been free of public health orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while Public Health Madison Dane County removed those restrictions — including mask requirements and gathering capacity limits — on June 2, it is now up to owners and managers of individual businesses in Verona to keep customers healthy and feeling comfortable.

In some cases, that means enforcing their own rules regarding wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and cleaning.

And as customers have begun returning, the businesses the Verona Press spoke with – a hair salon, a gym, a ballet studio, a coffee shop and a wine bar – said they haven’t felt the national staffing shortages resulting from the suddenly booming economy.

At Ballet U, 411 Prairie Heights Drive, owner Stephanie Tollefson said she was excited to hear about the change and dropped her mask mandate for adult classes starting with the summer session that began in June.

While the intention is for vaccinated students to have the option to go maskless, she doesn’t check for proof of vaccination.

Though, for many of her younger pupils, for whom the vaccine is not yet approved, they are still required to wear masks, and the teachers are too to “set a good example,” Tollefson said. Come fall, masks may be optional for them, as well.

But for her youngest students – kids under 5 – masks have been optional all along and most are not wearing them anymore.

“It seems difficult to know what to do,” she said. “If you’re too strict you alienate people, but if you’re too loose you also alienate.”

Some of her students have not come back to the studio yet and still don’t feel it is safe, though the majority have returned, she said. To accommodate everyone, some classes are still offered over Zoom video conferencing. And some of her adult students, despite being vaccinated, prefer to continue to wear masks.

Only one business the Press spoke with is requiring proof of vaccination status to be maskless – Unbroken Strength, 535 Half Mile Road.

The gym offers group training and circuit classes. Owner Mike Rainiero had been requiring staff to stay masked-up regardless of vaccination status until recently, but now is no longer requiring vaccinated staff to wear masks during classes.

Masks are still required for clients who have not been vaccinated, and the gym is requiring proof with a vaccine card, he said.

At Rooted Culture Salon, 957 Liberty Drive, the team of stylists has decided to continue to wear their masks and is encouraging guests to do the same, but clients can choose for themselves, owner Jacqui Kronabetter told the Press.

That’s the same route the staff at the Sow’s Ear, 125 S. Main St. is taking.

“We’re currently requiring staff to mask, but looking into whether it is safe to allow some employees to unmask,” general manager Jen Davis said. “We have been encouraging our customers to mask, but we would never enforce masking without the support of the Dane County order.”

June was a banner month for Rooted Culture.

“We have seen a massive growth in the last month,” Kronabetter said. “We’ve gotten a lot busier, the busiest we’ve ever been.”

Toot and Kate’s Wine Bar, 109 S. Main St., is having a similar experience after having mostly shut down for nine of 12 months between March 2020 to March 2021.

For a business already limited by its small space, county capacity limits made it not financially feasible to maintain normal hours, Clark said. During that time, the wine bar was only open six hours a week.

Now it’s back to operating normally and June was one of the most profitable months it’s had, Clark said.

“We really ended June with a bang in terms of people ready to be out again – ready to live life again,” she said.

Maintaining distance

One reason some businesses like Toot and Kate’s found it not financially feasible to stay open normal hours was the gathering limits, which at times were as low as 25%.

Now, some businesses continue to limit the number of customers sharing space, while others have come up with other ways to establish comfortable distance.

Toot and Kate’s does not require masks for her staff or patrons, so having four outdoor bistro tables on a stoop has been a godsend, Clark said. She’s even upped her insurance policy to cover the seating terrace and has kept the door open for airflow.

“I think people prefer to be outside,” she said.

Unbroken Strength is still limiting classes below its normal full capacity, Rainiero said.

It’s capping classes to around 12-15 people per group, rather than the 20 that could fit, to help keep people spaced apart.

Unbroken Strength has kept other social distancing measures in place, including floors marked to create individual workout stations, where each student has their own workout equipment, weights and cleaning supplies.

At Ballet U, Tollefson is not limiting the number of students, as she said her class sizes were never large to begin with.

The studio has done away with the taped boxes on the floor meant to contain dancers. The dancers are good about spacing out on their own, Tollefson said.

Sow’s Ear staff have also taken the tape off the floor that marked six feet distance points for people waiting in line, Davis said.

Rooted Culture has returned to using each styling station, rather than every other chair to spread out clients, as it had been doing for much of the pandemic. Plastic partitions continue to hang from the ceiling between each station, however.

Sow’s Ear has not enforced social distancing, but the indoor dining tables are still spaced out, Davis said, and there is limited indoor seating to allow for more space between diners. Its knitting classes were already small before the pandemic, Davis said. So that hasn’t had to change for COVID-19 procedures.

Keeping clean

As scientists and health experts came to a better understanding of how the coronavirus was spread last year, federal and local guidelines reduced the focus on surface cleaning procedures.

But disinfecting and following advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention remains a high priority for some businesses.

At Toot and Kate’s, Clark said, the cleaning standards were high even before the pandemic.

“Being two moms, we always had plenty of hand sanitizer in place even before,” Clark said.

She said she was slow to bring back physical menus or free water as she was conscious of touch points in the bar. And she’s noticed more people using sanitizer than pre-pandemic, she said.

Ballet U staff continue to use Clorox on surfaces, but less now than in recent months, leaving cleaning standards more in line with how they were pre-pandemic, Tollefson said.

Sow’s Ear has abandoned some of the cleaning procedures that felt performative but continues to keep clean, Davis said.

“We have been working doubly hard to keep the shop clean between customer uses,” she said. “We have let go of some of the theater, based on CDC recommendations, but we still clean tables between dine-in customers and we keep our counters clean.”

Meanwhile, Rooted Culture staff will be sticking with the cleaning routine between every guest it established during the pandemic, Kronabetter said.

Toot and Kate’s and Unbroken Strength, both businesses with smaller indoor spaces, are using the outdoors to keep a well-ventilated environment to add a layer of comfort and safety.

Toot and Kate’s keeps the door open for good airflow, which was recommended by the health department, Clark said. Unbroken Strength has an outdoors workout area for anyone who does not feel comfortable inside or is unvaccinated.

New hires, old faces

As business has increased this year, many businesses are facing staffing shortages. But that trend is not impacting the businesses the Press spoke to.

Ballet U has kept the same staff over the past year.

“It was important to us to keep them employed,” Tollefson said.

And Rooted Culture and Toot and Kate’s both even managed to grow their teams.

Rooted Culture’s stylists are still seeing some customers returning for the first time since the pandemic began, Kronabetter said.

Toot and Kate’s also has had no problem hiring, Clark said. After a recent hiring, she’s had to waitlist two more interested applicants.

Staffing was never a concern at Unbroken Strength, which had a small staff to begin with. Rainiero runs the gym with his girlfriend Kelly Kaschner and coaches most of the classes himself, with a few part time coaches and said he’s been able to manage things smoothly.

He began seeing an uptick in clients at the gym last month, particularly people who had paused their membership for the past year. He said his gym feels like a “community” again.

“A lot of old members are coming back,” Rainiero said. “We haven’t seen a lot of anxiety too much at all. We’ve been trying to make sure everyone feels pretty good about it, and people are feeling pretty pumped about it.”

Like so many business owners and managers, Jen Davis said the Sow’s Ear they missed its customers, and the staff is happy to have survived the tough year.

While she said they will continue to follow the advice of the World Health Organization, CDC and local governments as new information about the virus and its variants comes forth, the business is looking forward to a busy fall season.

“The shop has been very busy since June 3rd, and it’s been very nice to see our friends in the community enjoying the deck, visiting us on these gorgeous summer days,” she said. “It’s been much like the olden days before COVID.”

Neal Patten can be contacted at neal.patten@wcinet.com.

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