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I Own a Coffee Shop in a Small Town. We’re the Only Business That Requires Masks.

People didn’t believe COVID would affect our remote community in South Dakota, but my cafe can’t take that chance

Paper sign in a window reading “Masks are required. Thank you.” with an image of a disposable paper mask. Akerri/Shutterstock

This is Eater Voices, where chefs, restaurateurs, writers, and industry insiders share their perspectives about the food world, tackling a range of topics through the lens of personal experience.

I was raised in Philip, South Dakota, a small rural community located 80 miles from the nearest big-box shopping center. I make my living working from home as a software engineer for a large avionics corporation, but about four and a half years ago, my mom, sister, and I became business partners and opened Ginnys coffee shop. After living in Iowa for 13 years and moving back home to Philip, visiting a coffee shop became the biggest void in my daily routine. It was one of the amenities missing from our community.

While the population of Philip is only about 800 people, we’re unique in that we are a pretty self-contained community. We have nearly everything we need right here. There’s a great health care system, including a hospital, a nursing home, and assisted living, as well as dental and eye care. Local shops provide us with groceries, home building and maintenance supplies, and clothing. We have a steakhouse and a few other eating establishments.

Many people didn’t believe COVID-19 would affect our community because we are so remote. When the CDC issued initial guidelines to social distance (Gov. Kristi Noem has resisted statewide lockdowns and health mandates), a few businesses did make some changes. Ginnys went to curbside delivery only, as did the grocery store for a short time, partly because outsiders were traveling to Philip for toilet paper and other supplies (and to visit our bars, which remained open). But for many, it was business as usual.

As far as I’m aware, Ginnys is the only business in town to require masks for employees and customers, the only local business that isn’t back to business as usual, and the only eating establishment in town still not allowing people to come in and sit. We’ve chosen to wear masks to keep our employees, community, and families safe, so we can stay open, and so our kids can stay in school and sports. We’ve given our customers the flexibility of three options to order: customers can order and pay online, then pick up at the back door; call in an order and pick it up at the back door; and most recently, come in and place their order to-go while wearing a mask.

Our mask policy, of course, hasn’t been well received by everyone. It hasn’t helped our business financially. Many people view masks as a political argument over individual rights. We view them as a personal responsibility to keep our neighbors safe. We haven’t had any heated confrontations like you see on the news at Target or Starbucks. If someone ignores our signs and walks in without a mask, we hand them a disposable one. On one occasion, after telling a customer about all the options she had to order, she just said she wasn’t doing any of those things and left. It’s taken many additional hours to offer online ordering, and we had to do it with a very quick turnaround. We feel we’ve done our best to accommodate and serve everyone. If none of our options meet your needs, we regrettably can’t serve you.

A two-story Victorian-style house in a suburb with trees all around
Outside of Ginnys coffee shop in Philip, South Dakota
Courtesy of Ginnys

Today, case numbers are on the rise, both in our county and across South Dakota. The state recently topped the nation in the number of positive cases per capita reported daily. My husband, who has his own computer service business, doesn’t follow the same mask-wearing policies with his customers and tested positive for COVID-19 a few weeks ago. Our two kids and I had to quarantine for two weeks. I tested negative, but it made us feel better at the coffee shop that, if I had gotten it, I and everyone else was wearing a mask. We felt pretty safe I hadn’t passed it on to anybody. Otherwise, it could have shut down our business. Plus, my mom is in her 60s, so she’s more vulnerable.

It’s not easy going against the grain in a small community, but it’s not really new to our family. When my siblings and I were in high school, it was pretty common for our mom to write letters to the editor or appeal school board policies. She’s always tried to do the right thing, even if it makes her unpopular.

My sister and I try to follow her example, but we’ve all found it becomes more challenging as business owners in a small community. There will always be people that oppose your views and express that opposition by not supporting your business. That’s why most business owners will no longer take positions in local government.

I feel that things might be different for our business if our country and state had leadership setting good examples. I don’t necessarily think a statewide mask mandate is necessary, but masks would be more accepted in rural communities like Philip if leadership was setting the example. People want to keep businesses open for the economy. I believe we can do that, but wear your mask. As COVID-19 cases and death rates continue to rise in South Dakota and our community, people may decide we’re not so stupid.

We’ve lost customers, but continue to gain new ones. I know there are some people who appreciate the way we’re doing business. They can feel safe getting their coffee and shopping our in-store merchandise. Though the pandemic has been a hardship for our business, I’m confident we’ll survive. People have come to enjoy the convenience of our online ordering system, which we didn’t have pre-pandemic, and hopefully they’ll continue to use it in the future. My family wouldn’t suffer financial hardship if the cafe doesn’t survive, but we feel a sense of responsibility to keep our doors open because the space has become a big asset to our community. We are grateful to those who have supported us through everything and just can’t wait until we can go back to business as usual.

Trisha Larson is co-owner of Ginnys coffee shop in Philip, South Dakota.