GREAT FALLS — Kate Heryla has worked as a mermaid at the Sip ‘N Dip Lounge at the O’Haire Motor Inn in Great Falls for more than three years - but it’s her first day back in the pool after a 47-day furlough due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she’s a little nervous.
“There’s always the worry if I can still do this job,” Heryla said. “It’s definitely very physically demanding so I never know getting into it whether I can get through a whole shift. It’s exciting and nerve wracking. But I’m thrilled to get back and see everybody, especially all of our regulars.”
The former swimmer at CMR High School greets her co-workers, grabs her outfit, and heads upstairs to the pool. She jumps in wearing a mask for the first few minutes to acknowledge our current, collective reality. “All of the mermaids are super excited to get back in the water,” Heryla said. “Being the first one back, I am super proud.”
It almost didn’t happen. Though bars and restaurants were allowed reopen this week, restrictions on pools remain in place until Phase 3 of Governor Bullock’s re-opening plan. When O’Haire Motor Inn owner Sandra Thares reached out, the Cascade Country Health Department denied her request to allow mermaids to swim in the tank.
However, when she contacted the governor’s office they noted that hotel pools could reopen with strict social distancing enforcement for registered guests only.
After a few e-mails and phone calls from Thares, the sides reached a compromise. The mermaid pool would reopen with new guidelines, including only one swimmer in the tank at the time. There are usually two.
Thares sent a text to Heryla and the other furloughed mermaids with the good news.
“I texted back ‘Yay!!’ with a bunch of exclamation points and a smiley face,” Heryla laughed. “Then I wanted to know when we are getting back in, what’s it going to look like. We got the schedule the next day and I was super excited to be the first one to get back in the water.”
It’s not quite business as usual for Sip ‘N Dip employees yet. Capacity in the lounge is limited, and bar seating is prohibited during the first phase of re-opening. Patrons aren’t allowed to go behind the bar to take pictures with the mermaids anymore and are advised not to linger in front of the bar either.
But there are no complaints from Heryla and other employees as they dive back into the pool and into the new normal.
“So, it will be great to have everybody back to normal one day,” Heryla said. “I know we have to get there the right way, but when everybody is back and we’re having a good time it with patrons it will be worth it.”
Of course, mermaids are only one part of what makes the Sip 'N Dip famous. Thares tells us that longtime keyboardist Patricia “Piano Pat” Spoonheim, 82, is still on the sidelines during the pandemic. She will not return until Montana reaches Phase Three of the re-opening plan.