Community conversation aims to move discussion around pandemic response forward

The lines form early and often at Cheeky’s and Birba, a pair of Palm Springs hot spots known for creative menus, handcrafted cocktails, and a vibe that lets customers know they’ve arrived in the city advertised as being “Like no place else.”

General manager Felix Tipper and his staff of servers, greeters, chefs, and bartenders create that vibe right alongside red flannel hash and morning margaritas. But as COVID-19 began to cut its deadly and destructive path across the planet two years ago, something else was added to the menu: stress.

As the state went into lockdown in March 2020, the restaurants’ doors were closed, and the staff joined millions of colleagues worldwide in a state of suspended animation, waiting and hoping for normalcy to return. It didn’t happen.

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“Everything really changed for us,” Tipper explained by phone last week. “First, everything closed, and we all experienced that. Then it was, OK, you can come back, but we were only going to be open outside. That message came on a Monday, and we had to be open on Tuesday, so we were trying to call back staff.”

What followed were two years of restrictions that came and went, then came again, then went again. In the middle of it, Tipper and his staff tried valiantly to adjust to regulations and recommendations that seemed to be coming from all directions.

Frequent hand washing and distanced outdoor dining was believed to be the best way to stop the spread of COVID-19 at first. Then indoor dining was allowed again, but only at a distance. Eventually, customers who chose to eat indoors were required to wear a mask, but only until seated. In Palm Springs, they also had to show proof of vaccination. Tipper’s staff, however, remained masked — even those in the back of the house toiling over open flames.

“That’s what changed everybody’s game,” Tipper said. ” As it unfolded, we still needed to deliver hospitality. We’re wearing masks, and we’re trying to work, and we’re trying to communicate with customers because your personality really gets you your tips and keeps regular customers coming back. Your morale is a little low when you have to have that mask on.”

Felix Tipper, general manager of Cheeky’s and Birba, will be one of the panelists at tonight’s community conversation event on how we move forward as the pandemic becomes an endemic. (Photo by Hank Hudson)

Also affecting morale was the confusion of customers, some of whom came from states without any regulations and were caught off guard by rules in Palm Springs. While some heated exchanges occurred, Tipper said he feels fortunate nobody escalated to violence like that experienced at one Palm Springs establishment.

“We spent so much time explaining the city ordinance,” Tipper said. “The front of the house had to police people and explain things for the city. But you pick your battles.”

Morale is better these days, Tipper said, crediting the 100-plus employees who formed a family and stuck with F10 Creative and the mission and vision created by founder Tara Lazar.

Also aiding morale is the fact that recently the city removed restrictions. Customers and staff are now free to remove their masks if they so choose. Proof of vaccination is no longer required.

“I think right now customers are excited, and the staff is also happy, especially the back of the house,” Tipper said. “I’m personally cautiously optimistic. We got to this point before, but then there was a different variant.”

What happens if another variant comes along, or another pandemic entirely will be the topic of the first “Community Conversations” event tonight at the Palm Springs Cultural Center, starting at 7 p.m. The event, titled “Covid: What’s Next?’ will be an informal roundtable featuring a moderated panel of experts and community members — including Tipper — who were on the front lines of the battle against Covid these past two years.

More information: “Covid: What’s Next?” is co-hosted by The Palm Springs Post and the Cultural Center. It’s free and will include time for audience questions and participation. The Cultural Center is located at 2300 East Baristo Rd. The event begins at 7 p.m. For complete details, including a list of roundtable participants, click here.


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