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'Only game in town' — With virus threat, Nebraska small-town bars defer and defy
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'Only game in town' — With virus threat, Nebraska small-town bars defer and defy

From the Latest updates on coronavirus in Lincoln and nearby series

Her regular customers were helping with calving and a blizzard was blowing in, so business was already slow at the Longhorn Saloon in Harrison.

Becky Law didn’t need any nonsense from the coronavirus to make it worse.

And that’s what she — and her customers — believe this is.

Nonsense. No different than the flu.

“We think it’s crazy. It’s a political scare, I think, and so do they (her customers). It’s hyped up by everybody trying to close everything down.”

So it was still business as usual at the Longhorn. No limits. No distancing. And certainly no talk of closing.

Where else would her customers go?

“There would probably be a rebellion,” Law said. “They’d come and get me.”

The stakes are especially high in her corner of northwest Nebraska, just as they are more than 500 miles to the southeast in Rulo, and in the smallest towns across the state, where the bar and grill is often the only source of food and drink.

And though the virus has so far largely plagued the Omaha area — in terms of confirmed cases — its shadow has already crept across the state, darkening the most-remote reaches and forcing restaurant and bar owners to change how they’ve traditionally done business.

Or, at least, most of them.

Cost of compliance

The Sunday buffet at the Pioneers Inn in Gilead has routinely drawn up to 100 customers, their demand for Karen Keilwitz’s broasted chicken more than doubling the population of the Thayer County town.

Pioneers Inn Restaurant, 3.20

The Pioneers Inn in Gilead is following the federal guidelines of limiting crowds to 10. Last week, owner Karen Keilwitz made customers wait a half-hour because her dining room was at its new capacity.

“That’s a lot of business,” said Keilwitz, who opened the restaurant and community hub nearly 35 years ago.

Enough business, when combined with Thursday’s hamburger nights and her loyal customers, for Keilwitz to keep a dozen employees on her payroll.

But almost overnight last week — after the governor embraced federal guidelines limiting crowds to 10 — that changed.

Business dropped. She hasn’t cut staff, but she’s had to cut their hours. She canceled the buffet. She’s encouraging carryout orders. And she’s enforcing the guidelines.

Thursday, she had to make customers wait a half-hour because her dining room was at its new capacity.

They were understanding, she said. Most are.

“The locals are very supportive. Some people think it’s silly to have the 10-person limit; some people think it’s a good idea. We kind of have mixed emotions.”

By Friday, her business was down to half of what it was before, she said.

And she had no idea what will happen next.

“Right now, I just don’t know.”

‘Ready to hunker down’

The people of Palisade don’t have a choice if they want to get a meal, a drink or fill a shopping cart.

“We’re the only game in town,” said Missy Blackman, co-owner of Sodtown Sundries, 250 miles southwest of Lincoln on the Hayes and Hitchcock county line.

But early last week, the town’s choices narrowed further. Sodtown closed its dine-in area and bar. Now, if you want a drink in Palisade, you have to take it home.

“They can still buy beer here, but they can’t sit here,” Blackman said.

The move was a blow to the groups that would gather in the dining room, and to the annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration, and to Sodtown’s bottom line.

“It’s disappointing,” she said. “It’s a lot of income, but you have to do what you have to do.”

But grocery sales have increased. Customers are buying more chicken noodle soup, more milk — fresh and powdered — and, of course, more toilet paper, Lysol and hand sanitizer.

Lincoln Lutheran students back in school, virtual-style

And they’re not out of control. Blackman hasn’t had to impose limits or post signs or manage panic.

“Nobody has been out of line,” she said. “They’re obviously ready to hunker down, but they’re being calm at the same time.”

Sodtown has also been catering to its older and vulnerable customers, offering delivery and curbside pickup.

For now, they’re surviving, and Blackman hasn’t had to cut her staff of six.

“I have not,” she said. “And I’m going to do everything I can not to.”

The ripple effect

Richardson County doesn’t have a confirmed COVID-19 case yet, but the staff at Wild Bill’s — one of Rulo’s two bars — is pouring on the bleach and other disinfectants, keeping the kitchen cleaner than ever.

They're encouraging carryout and about to begin delivery. The bar is also following the 10-person limit, but hasn’t yet had to turn anybody away.

An occasional beer drinker might wander in, but most are staying away, a co-owner said.

In Hooker County, in the heart of the Sandhills, loyal customers keep filling up at Red’s Café and Lounge in Mullen. But fewer strangers are pulling off Nebraska 2, owner Helen Neumeyer said.

For now, Red’s is still serving breakfast, lunch and dinner — still keeping Neumeyer, her husband, daughter and an employee on the clock — but it’s getting harder.

“It’s just slow,” she said, not willing to quantify the loss. “Business has slowed down quite a bit.”

She heard about the 10-person limit guidance, so she put signs outside of her restaurant to comply. But she’s frustrated she hasn’t received more direction from the state of Nebraska; she and her neighbors have little radio service out there, and many get their TV news from Colorado stations.

Gilead inn gets new lease on life

She hadn’t heard, for example, that Omaha’s second case of community spread had closed its bars and forced restaurants to offer carryout or delivery only.

“It would be nice to know. We have no idea what our government is doing.”

And in Peru, along the Missouri River south of Nebraska City, Zach’s Bar and Grill cut its weekday hours and is promoting carryout, Kelsey Huffman said.

The threat of the virus slowed business; the cancellation of in-person Peru State College classes dealt an even bigger blow.

“It’s affecting everything,” she said.

First the flood, now the fear

A year ago, Laura Sucha of Niobrara knew what she was up against, even if it looked like the end of her restaurant.

The Spencer Dam had failed upstream, and the river had swept away her neighbors and swallowed the Country Café with floodwater and ice chunks — breaching its walls, dislodging the roof, swamping the dining room and kitchen.

Niobrara flooding

Niobrara River floodwaters buried the Country Café last year in March.

Her first visit, after navigating washed-out roads and dodging debris, was brutal. She’d put 25 years into the restaurant, feeding locals and tourists and hunters. But then she realized the walls could be repaired, the roof replaced, the interior renovated. She and others got to work.

The Country Café reopened in early June. And it thrived.

“Business actually got better,” she said. “The workers and people were curious. So they were coming around and checking things out.”

The virus fears hit almost exactly a year after the flood. She heard about the 10-person recommended limit. But she can’t abide.

'Where I want to be' — With help from Lincoln, Niobrara cafe owner rebuilds

“We’re small. We can’t take a hit like last year, so we’re going to do the best we can.”

Besides, she said, the community depends on her. Her loyal locals. The workers rebuilding the area’s roads and bridges. They have nowhere else to go.

She doesn’t limit her customers, but she tries to keep them at a safe distance from each other, and her staff is disinfecting the café more than ever.

Business is down maybe 30%, she said. But she’s not giving up.

“If we can survive that flood, we’ll survive this coronavirus.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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