As Covid-19 cases in variant form surge in Utah and across the US, the divide between those who support mask and vaccine mandates and those who do not continues to widen.
Owners of three local businesses were interviewed for this story, to see how a vaccine mandate would impact employees already stretched thin by the pandemic’s heavy hand.
Quality of life, not quantity
Buffy Rose serves as executive director of Hidden Valley Assisted Living in Ogden’s upscale Shadow Valley neighborhood. The facility currently employs 53 employees and houses 47 residents in their advanced years.
Although her facility advertises front and center on its webpage that it has the vaccine on hand for any resident or worker that needs it, Rose balks at mandating they get the jab.
“I got vaccinated, but I’ll be the first one to quit if they mandate it. It’s not because I’m an anti-vaxxer,” Rose said. “Especially in assisted living, we all saw the effects of the isolation and mandates in general. I think there’s a large portion of us who think it’s been pushed too far in all directions.”
Rose described the trauma her staff endured in the pre-vaccine days of 2020 as they wore full protective garb, locked the facility’s doors and isolated elderly residents from their loved ones and each other for weeks and months at a time.
“It really is nothing short of PTSD. We’ve seen residents get the flu, pneumonia, Covid — that’s not the worst part of our jobs,” Rose said. “The worst part was taking their rights away, telling them they can’t see their families, that they can’t kiss their spouse of 70 years, that they can’t hug their new grandchild.”
Some residents ended up getting hospitalized due to panic attacks and depression, Rose said, and one slit his own throat. “It felt a lot like prison, and it was horrible to be the prison guard. I had to tell them all the things they couldn’t do.”
And now she questions whether that emotional and psychological toll was worth it. In her business, residents generally move in to live out their final days with as much quality of life as possible.
“For me to shift all focus into keeping them alive — and then take everything that makes life worth living away just made no sense,” Rose said. “We’re all a little haunted and feel guilt and shame for what we did in the name of protecting them.”
During those dark days, Rose said that seven residents and 13 staff members caught Covid-19, but all survived — and now have some natural immunities.
She’s also proud to say that “we were one of the first communities to schedule the vaccine and give it to our residents and staff. All but two of my residents got both doses of the vaccine.”
But Rose fears that a return to mandates — even if it means just a quick shot in the arm — will cause more health care workers to head for the exit, especially those who worked through the pandemic’s peak in 2020.
“It’s always been hard, but it’s gotten 100 times harder with Covid and the staffing crisis the pandemic created for everyone. It’s not worth pushing any more out,” Rose said.
Dining out safely
Pete and Kym Buttschardt own and operate four brew pubs and restaurants in Ogden and Layton, with a new fifth location inside the Salt Lake City airport. Their first location, Union Grill, opened in Ogden in 1991.
They now employ 180 workers throughout their Ogden and Layton locations, Kym Buttschardt said.
“If we required vaccinations, there’s a strong sentiment that a few would quit. They feel very strongly. They’re good workers and it’s pretty hard to check politics at the door,” Buttschardt said. “We started requiring masks for everyone as soon as we saw the numbers rise. We always required it for the unvaccinated, and now we’ve gone back to everyone wearing a mask.”
But if case numbers continue to grow, Buttschardt said they might have to readjust and require that employees get vaccinated. “The crazier it gets, we might just go there.” But she hopes that day doesn’t come.
“We’re all stretched to the limit to maintain a reasonable amount of hours to be open, because of the help shortage,” Buttschardt said. “This is a very challenging time in our industry’s history. It’s honestly quite heartbreaking.”
Genevieve Romero owns and operates Creative Times Academy in South Ogden, where her staff of 15 has shrunk to six.
Due to a worker shortage that she said began in 2021, Romero had to make some changes.
“We are stretched thin,” Romero said. “I used to take children four weeks to 12 years, but had to close down my infant-toddler room. I just take children two to 10 … I had to cut certain things because I didn’t have enough employees.”
She also adjusted hours of service, opening an hour later at 6:30am, then closing an hour earlier at 5:30pm.
Romero also watches case numbers, and said she will reintroduce staff mask requirements if needed. But she prefers to leave vaccination decisions to her employees, seeing it as a personal choice.
By mid-September, Utah’s daily average of new Covid cases exceeded 1,500, with unvaccinated people 6 times more likely to test positive, almost 7 times more likely to be hospitalized, and at least 5 times more likely to die from the virus, according to a Utah Department of Health analysis.
Of 4,200 Utahns who tested positive over a three-day weekend, 935 were youth in grades K-12.
According to the latest data, Utah’s staffed intensive care unit beds exceeded full capacity in September.
On September 9, President Joe Biden detailed his new plan to address this surge, including vaccine mandates for federal workers and contractors, along with certain health care workers. Also, companies with 100 or more workers would need to implement vaccines or weekly Covid-19 testing.