The owners and managers of restaurants and bars in Tahlequah know what they need to do to stay afloat, and to keep welcoming customers. And they've taken the bull by the horns.

Last Thursday evening, several of them met to discuss protocols that could keep their customers safe from COVID-19. They're taking the matter seriously, even if some of their customers are cavalier about it. This proactive stance is something the community should be grateful for - and frankly, we're surprised it didn't happen earlier, given the savvy nature of these entrepreneurs.

No one wants local businesses shut down again. That could bring about financial turmoil most of these merchants would not survive. There has to be a way to keep people safe without literally shuttering the whole economy. There has to be a way to save people from themselves.

One of the movers and shakers in this group - and indeed, in the whole community - is Andrea Chaffin, exalted ruler of the Tahlequah Elks Lodge. Chaffin is a civic-minded, no-nonsense sort of leader, and one who not only sees the writing on the wall, but will force others to read it as well. She said this: "Collectively, we need to get together and do something for our patrons, to make them feel safer coming out, especially with big corporations going with mask requirements and things like that."

She was referring to mask mandates recently announced by Walmart and other "big box" stores and companies. In light of this, the group plans to submit a letter to the city, detailing suggestions on precautions. They also want to create a Tahlequah Bar and Restaurant Association, which is an excellent idea. As The Branch owner Brian Berry and Kroner & Baer owner Bill Worthington pointed out, such an organization could give them a stronger voice when they address the Tahlequah City Council. And there's no question the council will listen.

All those in attendance agreed to require employees to wear masks, and this is a good place to start. They don't plan to make customers mask up, unless the city mandates it, though they will encourage it. But what they should do is ask customers to practice social distancing. Tahlequah residents who have traveled during this pandemic to other states, where protocols are much stricter, can attest that social distancing really does work to mitigate the spread of this virus.

Chaffin said the Elks Lodge will be putting up signs to impart this message: "We like being open, we like being able to serve you, and in order to help us be successful and not be shut back down, ... help us by putting your mask when you go into the crowd." And added Gary Kirkpatrick, owner of Ned's: "We're really going to try our best to prevent the spread of COVID."

The restaurant and bar owners are stepping up to do their part. Now, it's up to their customers to truly support them - not just with their dollars, but with their consideration. If you're sick, stay home. If you aren't unable to wear a mask for some reason, wear one. And if you don't feel safe patronizing these places just yet, buy a gift card to use later. Let's help keep Tahlequah open for business - or as TDP puts it, #openforbusiness.

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