Year of COVID: Colorado Springs business, arts leaders reflect on a pandemic year

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Like many people, restaurateur Suzette Megyeri was scared a year ago at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Scared of the unknown. Scared of what would happen to her restaurants. Scared of what the restaurants’ 75 employees would face.

Megyeri and her husband, Kevin, operate Bambino’s Urban Pizzeria and the Skirted Heifer hamburger restaurant in downtown Colorado Springs, while their son, also named Kevin, owns the Skirted Heifer on the city’s northeast side.

On March 16, as a means of stopping the spread of the coronavirus, the state of Colorado ordered all restaurants to temporarily cease dining room service — the lifeblood of any eatery — the next day. The closures lasted just over two months, though restaurants were allowed to continue takeout, curbside and delivery service.

Year of COVID: Colorado Springs reflects on fight against invisible foe

“My mind was just full of chaos,” Megyeri said. “Everyone, all of our employees were super scared. We were scared. We didn’t know what doing business during a pandemic looked like. We literally took it day by day. And everyday we were just trying to solve a series of dilemmas. It was rough. It was super rough.”

“I had the feeling of the unknown. And being super scared.”

As a successful restaurant owner for 40 years, Megyeri said she missed the people — the loyal customers who dined daily at their businesses.

“That was the hardest part, is not having customers sit at our tables,” she said. “I just remembered putting the chairs up on the tables, going, ‘oh my gosh, this is so ugly. How can we make this work better? What are we going to do with all these tables and chairs?’ I missed our customers being able to sit in our dining room.”

But once the pandemic ends, Megyeri said she hopes to return to a more normal state of business.

For one, that probably means no more masks, which are tricky for restaurant workers to wear on the job.

“I don’t work on crew as much as I used to, and I’ll be down at the restaurants, we’ll all have our masks on, and I’ll be fiddling with my mask and just super uncomfortable,” Megyeri said. “Our crew, they never complained about it. Ever. They didn’t even talk about the masks. It’s amazing how resilient people are and how they just get used to things.”

And, in a post-pandemic world, Megyeri said she once again hopes to be able to embrace friends and customers.

“The hugging,” Megyeri said. “That’s been really, really tricky for me. I can’t wait until we can get back to the hugs. But I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen again. I just don’t know what this (post-pandemic world) looks like. … I hope things get back to normal, but I just don’t know. I just don’t know what this looks like.”— Rich Laden

As executive director of Manitou Art Center, Natalie Johnson had to quickly make decisions that affected the lives and livelihoods of the nonprofit organization’s artists, members, staff and guests when the pandemic began to take root.

“I can remember trying to figure out when, why and how to close the MAC in March,” she says. “There was nothing in my last fifteen years of managing businesses and nonprofits to prepare me for this.”

The scariest part? Waiving all rental and membership income for the MAC for three months with no plan to make up for that loss of income. Fortunately, the situation has worked out, says Johnson.

It took several months for the pandemic to become personal and world-changing for Johnson. Around May or June she knew a month-long lockdown wouldn’t be the answer, as she watched friends and family members get sick with the virus and knew others who died.

Not being able to see her Illinois-based grandmother on her 99th birthday earlier this year has been one of the hardest losses to overcome: “Missing her birthday was more difficult than missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family.”

But in the wake of losing so much, Johnson, like so many others, has developed new ways to fill her days: meditation, a return to reading philosophy, sewing, taking baths. She’s also learned to prioritize her mental and physical health, and has grown accustomed to mask-wearing, which might continue in her daily life when she has a cold or travels on a plane.

Johnson is optimistic people will emerge from the pandemic with a new appreciation for the small things. And she hopes seeing the impact of the virus on marginalized communities and the inequities of our society will stay at the forefront of our minds.

Sure, she’s missed things, like a regular outing with friends, but what’s maybe more interesting to her than what we missed this past year is what we didn’t miss.

“Before COVID-19, how many things did we commit to and do without thinking whether we enjoyed them or not? And then COVID-19 hit and gave us a minute to assess and say I didn’t miss these things at all.” — Jennifer Mulson

Postponing the biggest convention held in Colorado Springs and shifting his staff to remote work are most vivid memories from the first days of the COVID-19 pandemic for Tom Zelibor, CEO of the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation.

Zelibor had to pull the plug on the meeting, which annually brings more than 13,000 people to Colorado Springs, and send the nonprofit’s staff of 70 home hours later on March 13, 2020. The event is so critical to Colorado Springs, The Broadmoor built a new exhibition hall to house it.

“What stands out is how quickly our staff mobilized to respond to deliver educational programming to students, teachers and parents. Literally, the first day we were all remote, members of our education team opened their laptops, connected with one another from their homes and started putting together lesson plans, videos and live demonstrations for all ages to keep learning and engagement happening,” Zelibor said. “The same happened with our other staff members who proceeded to connect with all of our our symposium attendees, exhibitors and presenters from around the world to address their questions after we postponed the program.”

Zelibor said he misses the people that attend the symposium as well as the students and other visitors to the foundation’s Discovery Center and its exhibits. The nonprofit moved much of its programming online and on television through a variety of platforms, some of which will continue after the pandemic is history.

“When you bring people from around the world together like we do with the Space Symposium, you feed off of the energy, the back and forth you have with them, as well as the diversity of thought and experiences they bring to the table,” Zelibor said. “The same goes for not having the in-person field trips and visits in our Discovery Center. Not having students, teachers and parents in our building and seeing their energy grow as they experience what we offer is another thing we’ve missed.”

Zelibor said the online, virtual and other platforms allow the foundation to “keep information and conversations going year-round, and not just one week out of the year when the symposium occurs.” — Wayne Heilman

Chef Eric Brenner, owner of Red Gravy, said the moment he realized everything would change was when a news camera crew asked him to come out to the dining room to comment on the pending changes.

“As I was interviewing with them, the official word came to us that we had to close our doors and switch to curbside and delivery only. It was strange getting the news live on camera,” Brenner said.

Brenner said his restaurant has remained strong through the pandemic, and also engaged more closely with the community. It also embraced new ways of operating that will remain post pandemic, including a more robust carry-out and delivery business, expanded outdoor seating and more space between tables.

“I think a number of things have changed in the community that will change the dining scene in a positive way. People have become accustomed to making reservations. This allows the restaurant to provide better service and have more control of the dining room. We expect this to continue and the mad rush at 6:00 then seeing dining rooms completely empty at 8:00 will hopefully be a thing of the past,” Brenner said. “When we can open up fully, we will likely keep some of the spacing of tables to provide guests with a little extra space between them and the next table. No need to cram every inch of the dining room with a table or seating if guests are willing to dine with us later or enjoy the expanded outdoor seating when spring finally arrives.”

When it does, Brenner believes guests will be returning with new perspectives and new appreciation for “all the effort that goes into providing fresh, wholesome food in a clean and safe environment,” he said.

“I think the connection with local and independently owned businesses has profoundly expanded as citizens make conscious decisions to spend their special occasion, business lunch or family dinner where they know the owner, the chef, the staff and understand the commitment we have to providing the very best experience for all of our guests,” Brenner said. — Teresa Farney