Anchored by two college towns, the Palouse endured a unique hollowing out this past year as thousands of students went remote, economy-boosting athletic events disappeared and party prohibitions tempered school spirits.
"Our business model is camaraderie and Cougs being Cougs," says Bob Cady, owner of THE COUGAR COTTAGE in Pullman. "We rely on that good will. ... The pandemic stripped all of that away."
Perched between the Washington State University campus and Greek Row, Cougar Cottage often holds down the epicenter of WSU fandom through good and bad. COVID-19 turned Pullman's College Hill into a ghost town nearly overnight and the bar's close-packed revelry into a liability.
This year, Inlander readers recognized the Coug, as it's more commonly known, for making the Best Pandemic Pivot based on its clear-headed messaging, proactive safety measures and innovative efforts to bring people together virtually.
Cady says they tried to be as transparent and responsive as possible during the many changes of the past year. Customers and staff both appreciated clear expectations and consistent follow through on their health practices.
"The most important thing is making customers feel safe," he says. "You can't really get into the politics of it. ... Our politics were: This is the law, this is the science."
The Coug also offered gift cards, to-go drinks, virtual events, drink recipes and Zoom backgrounds to help stretch morale. Those efforts have helped bridge these past months, but Cady says he cannot wait to get back to the close-knit celebration of football weekends and other traditional events.
Perhaps once considered a luxury, the pandemic made patio seating a critical capacity for restaurants trying to keep customers safe and happy. Readers have declared MAIALINA PIZZERIA NAPOLETANA in Moscow the Best Outdoor Dining on the Palouse with its ample shade, tasteful cafe lighting and close proximity to the downtown core.
Many establishments have upgraded or installed new patios to try to open up functional seating this past year, but Maialina already had its space dialed.
Many Palouse retail shops turned to online sales or curbside racks to adapt this past year. Mia Peterson, owner of FLIRT in downtown Pullman, says her staff has continued to specialize in helping select outfits that complement a customer's individual taste and body type.
"We take extra time to put together outfits that work," she says. "We like to take care of our customers. ... We have fashions for all generations."
Readers voted Flirt the Best Boutique on the Palouse this year, which Peterson attributes to her dedicated staff and fresh inventory.
"They're always going to see something new in the store," she says.
Peterson thanks her loyal customers and the community for its support, saying she cannot wait to see students and parents in the fall. She also has started planning for the boutique's annual sidewalk sale in late July.
A favorite of WSU students and Pullman families alike, SELLA'S CALZONE & PIZZA bakes some of the cheesiest dishes around — in a good way. Readers voted Sella's the Best Palouse Area Pizza for its packed calzones of all kinds and pizzas piled high with quality toppings.
Customer crayon artwork, often calzones drawn into cartoon characters or declarations of Cougar pride, cover the pizzeria walls. A helpful staff and regional beer selection on tap round out its friendly atmosphere.
The pandemic also pushed some businesses to make changes for the better. Patrick Merry, owner and winemaker at MERRY CELLARS WINERY in Pullman, says the winery has upgraded its operations, expanded capacity and adopted new flexibility during the past year.
"It was certainly a challenge," he says, "[but] we're not going to go back to the way things used to be."
Readers voted Merry Cellars the Best Winery on the Palouse this year. Merry says he believes the winery's collection of bright, Washington-sourced wines are "solid," but it's the staff that sets it apart.
"We get to know [customers] almost like family," he says.
And customers have appreciated some of the past year's changes, Merry says, such as home delivery and weeklong wine releases instead of one-day premieres. The winery staff also engaged in much more outreach with customers to stay connected. Merry plans to continue those services post-pandemic.
"I think that has paid off," he says. "We've learned a lot."
Beyond businesses trying to keep their doors open, health care professionals throughout the Palouse put in an extraordinary effort to treat and protect the community this year. Readers honored the NURSES OF PULLMAN REGIONAL HOSPITAL with the Pandemic Hero of the Palouse award for their hard work.
Chief Clinical Officer Jeannie Eylar says the nearly 140 nurses at Pullman Regional all endured months of taxing patient loads and ever-changing challenges. Many working with COVID-19 patients also suffered through the social isolation of constant quarantine.
"We just did the best that we could," she says.
Nurses working in the COVID unit often took steps at home to isolate from family members to protect against possible exposure, Eylar says. When hospital visitors were prohibited, many nurses then stepped in to help set up Zoom calls or other communications with patients' families on top of their nursing duties.
As cases surged and beds filled last fall, the hospital sometimes lost the ability to transfer high-demand patients to larger hospitals. Eylar says local nurses stepped up to cover those care needs again and again.
Hospital officials have offered additional support services and community members chipped in to sew masks. Eylar says many nurses have expressed a renewed sense of calling and teamwork throughout the past year.
"Through COVID we have strengthened," she says now. "We had a community that just rallied around us. That has meant a ton." ♦
BEST OUTDOOR DINING
1st PLACE: Maialina Pizzeria Napoletana, Moscow
2nd PLACE: Birch & Barley, Pullman
3rd PLACE: South Fork Public House, Pullman
1st PLACE: Flirt, Pullman
2nd PLACE: Golden Gem Mercantile, Rockford
3rd PLACE: Michelle's Closet, Pullman; Shop Sovereign, Pullman; The Storm Cellar, Moscow (tie)
1st PLACE: Sella's Calzone & Pizza, Pullman
2nd PLACE: Porch Light Pizza, Pullman
3rd PLACE: Maialina Pizzeria Napoletana, Moscow
1st PLACE: Merry Cellars, Pullman
2nd PLACE: Colter's Creek Winery, Moscow
3rd PLACE: Wawawai Canyon Winery, Uniontown
1st PLACE: Nurses of Pullman Regional Hospital
BEST PANDEMIC PIVOT
1st PLACE: The Coug