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Locals reflect on one year of COVID-19


Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state of emergency on March 12, 2020 as the coronavirus began spreading through the state. Four days later, Nevada reported its first COVID-19 death. On March 17, 2020, Sisolak ordered the closure of non-essential businesses in the state to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Many people expected this shutdown to be short-term—a few weeks to help “flatten the curve.”

Instead, it was months before many businesses could reopen in May, and bars in some counties were temporarily shut down for a second time in July.

Even today, businesses are only allowed to operate at 50% of their capacities, and there really is no answer as to when things will return to normal—or whatever a “new normal” might be.

On the one year anniversary of the first COVID-19 business shutdowns, This Is Reno spoke with business owners and nonprofits to see how they’ve been faring.

Using privilege for good 

Kurt Hoge of Reno Type had been blogging about the pandemic for a few months before the coronavirus arrived in  Nevada. Some of the things his business purchases and manufactures come from China. As the disease spread there, it started to affect delivery times for some of his clients. Then, it was here.

“It was really weird for me when suddenly it all became true—all of these things I’d been saying for three months,” Hoge said.

Reno Type's Kurt Hoge
Kurt Hoge of Reno Type.

As other businesses prepared to shutter, Hoge’s stayed opened. Reno Type had been declared essential. The designation arrived in the form of a letter from the U.S. Postal Service.

“That was great, but we didn’t have any customers,” he said. “Being open was pretty well irrelevant when it comes right down to it.”

Thankfully, Hoge was able to receive both Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). With little paying business to speak of, Hoge said he’d have otherwise had to let all of his employees go.

“This is a window into my privilege, I realize—people talked about how hard it was and how complicated it was to get those loans,” he said. “It was the easiest loan I’d ever applied for in my life. And I recognize that’s because I’ve been doing business. I’m a pretty well-off, white guy—and I have a relationship with my banker. If you didn’t have those things, you were screwed. Basically, I’m just saying I was lucky. I’m acknowledging my privilege here.”

Hoge is known in the community for doing good deeds. Last November, he booked 20 rooms at the Atlantis for families who’d been evacuated from their homes as a result of the Pinehaven Fire. He tried to use the self-described privilege of his business’ essential designation and easy access to loans to do good too.

“So, since there wasn’t any paying business to be had—or very little—I tried to do everything I could to do a bunch of free or steeply discounted work for organizations and businesses that might go out of business without the sort of help I was able to provide,” Hoge said. “So, we did a lot of free work for non-profit agencies to help them do fundraising and stuff like that. Again, without the PPP loans, I couldn’t have done that. I couldn’t have kept the doors open, period.”

A year into the pandemic, Hoge remains hopeful for the future.

“I’m extremely bullish on the future of northern Nevada,” he said. “It’s tough right now, but business is going to come roaring back as soon as it is safe to do so. And I’m glad that I’m still here, and I’m really sorry for those who didn’t make it—because, yeah, it’s going to be great. The next few years are going to be great.”

Keeping a fledgling dream alive 

At Food + Drink, a pizza place on St. Lawrence Street, owner Aaron Foster often thought over the past year that his might be one of the businesses that didn’t make it. His fledgling business was open for only six weeks before the first shutdown.

“If I’d talked to you a year ago and you’d said, ‘I’ll check in a year with you from now and see how it went,’ I would have said, ‘Yeah, I won’t be here.’ I had no expectations of lasting more than a month or two, at most,” Foster said.

Aaron Foster, owner of Food + Drink.
Image: Provided by Food + Drink.

He actually closed his business on March 13—simply because it was a slow evening.

“I remember this pretty clearly. A Thursday night I probably for the first time in two months, I sat down and read the news … and was like, ‘Oh, this is going to happen very soon,” Foster said.

In response, he made a video post on Facebook explaining why he would be keeping the restaurant closed for the time being.

The video, he said, went viral locally—which he credits with helping to spread the word about Food + Drink and enable him to do a fairly steady takeout business when he reopened. Until recently, he did this with the help of his parents who’d come to visit from Maine in March of 2020 and remained with Foster until October. For quite a while, he said, none of them thought the pandemic would stick around so long.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be two weeks, but I didn’t think it was going to be a year,” Foster said. “If the messaging had been ‘This is going to be a year,’ that would have been pretty dark. I think it would have been a much darker year—as dark as it was.”

While Foster never intended for Food + Drink to be a primarily takeout business, he said he’ll keep the takeout aspect even after it’s safe for people to dine in.

In the meantime, he hasn’t opened for dine in at all and isn’t sure when he will. He’s looking into the option of outdoor dining, but isn’t ready for people to sit inside because he doesn’t think it’s safe and doesn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s death.

Foster said he’s hopeful for the future—but cautiously so. He also worries about things like new strains of the virus.

“I hope that light at the end of the tunnel is sunshine, and not a train,” he said.

Setting the bar high 

Trevor Leppek, co-owner of Pignic Pub & Patio, said he never had any doubt that his business would survive the pandemic.

“For me, personally, failure just wasn’t an option,” he said. “We had to do what we had to do to survive—and as long as we were within the confines of the directives we’d been given.”

Leppek said he spoke with his attorney and was told that because they already had an off-premises sales license for beer and wine that Pignic could remain open for to-go business.  

Two Pignic Pub & Patio customers toasted to the Phase 1 reopening on May 9, 2020.
Image: Eric Marks / This Is Reno

“So, we basically turned into a retail store from that period from March 17 to … when it opened back up,” he said.

During that time, he said, the community really rallied around Pignic.

“I think the biggest takeaway for me, personally, is that I realized—even more than I knew it before—is how much of an extended family my team is and also our regulars who were coming in and tipping way more than they should have to buy six-packs of Modelo or craft beer or whatever they were coming in to drink because they couldn’t be at Pignic hanging out,” Leppek said. “I think that sort of sense of community and family—it was really heartening to see that happen.”

Leppek said he hasn’t been too concerned about the safety of being open. He said the bar industry has always been focused on sanitary measures, and his patrons have been gracious and diligent about engaging in them too. He said he thinks it might take some getting used to when mask and social distancing mandates are lifted.

“Moving forward, I think the strangest thing is going to be able to have a bar packed full of people and live music playing—which is where we want to get back to, you know?” Leppek said. “It’s going to be weird. We’ve gotten so used to having to police people. … We don’t want to be the ‘fun police.’ We’re supposed to be the fun bringers. People want to come to the bar to relax.”

Making notable strides 

Manal Toppozada is the founder and executive director of Note-Able Music Therapy Services. The organization started in 1999 as a music class at the Northern Nevada Center for Independent Living. The class quickly became the performing group, The Note-Ables. Then, in 2003 The Note-Ables became a nonprofit and began providing music therapy and adaptive music for people with disabilities, along with the performance group.  

Toppozada said when the pandemic hit, “Like everybody else, of course, obviously, our world was turned upside down.”

The music therapists at Note-Able performed a Saint Patrick’s Day quartet the day before the shutdown. At the time, they thought it would last a few weeks at most.

“I don’t know if it was blissfully ignorant—but we really, truly believed this was going to just be a little blip,” Toppozada said.

During the first week, the therapists spent a lot of time communicating with their program participants. As the shutdown dragged on, they found themselves having to explain to their differently abled participants that they hadn’t been kicked out of the programs—something Toppozada described as heartbreaking. The organization was able to pivot fairly quickly, however.

Note-Able received grant funding to purchase iPads and distributed them to 120 participants so they could take part in virtual programming. By June, 90% of their participants were engaged in online programming.

“I think all of the organizations that have been able to adapt—we’ve literally saved lives.”

Toppozada said the transition to online programming was difficult for the staff too, especially when it came to no longer being together in person.

“We instituted a lot of actual staff meetings, communication time that we hadn’t done before—because I think we kind of took for granted before that we were all fine, and we would reach out,” she said. “In a way, I guess that was a silver lining because, ironically, the staff, I think, is a stronger team because of that.”

Another positive Toppozada sees is that the organization has been able to expand its reach outside of the Reno area. It now has participants who live in Truckee, Carson City, Gardnerville and even as far away as Los Angeles.

“Not that I want the world to throw a lot more chaos on top of us, but I think that we’ve learned that what seems insurmountable a lot of times can be surmounted,” she said. “Things can be done.”

She said even after all of the therapists and program participants have been vaccinated, programs will continue in a hybrid format to ensure people who don’t live in Reno can still be a part of Note-Able. Offerings like a weekly virtual dance class have helped keep people from feeling so isolated. They may not be able to see their families or leave their group homes, but dance class is a certainty, Toppozada said.

On March 29, the organization will be doing its first in-person performance in more than a year at the McKinley Arts & Culture Center. A small number of people can attend in person, but people are also welcome to participate via Zoom. It will be a chance for Note-Able to give back to the community, which Toppozada said has really stepped up to help her organization over the last year with donations to sustain it. She said its nice to see the community place value on organizations like hers and believes it’s well placed.

“Not just us, but I think all of the organizations that have been able to adapt—we’ve literally saved lives,” she said.

Jeri Chadwell
Jeri Chadwellhttp://thisisreno.com
Jeri Chadwell came to Reno from rural Nevada in 2004 to study anthropology at the University of Nevada, Reno. In 2012, she returned to the university for a master’s degree in journalism. She is the former associate and news editor of the Reno News & Review and is a recipient of first-place Nevada Press Association awards for investigative and business reporting. Jeri is passionate about Nevada’s history, politics and communities.