Sunday, July 12, 2020

Local businesses face uncertainty with COVID-19 closures

Resources and opportunities available for employers and employees

By Kendra Walker

With advisories, closures and cancellations piling up each day due to COVID-19 precautions, and with Vail Resorts making the decision to suspend operations of all its North American mountain resorts, including Crested Butte Mountain Resort, for the remainder of the 2019/20 season, there’s no doubt the local business community has been and will continue to be affected.

On Monday, March 16, Gunnison County issued a Public Health Order closing all restaurants and retail other than delivery service (exempting certain businesses such as grocery stores, medical offices, hardware stores, liquor stores, dispensaries and gas stations), limiting gatherings to fewer than 10 people and directing all visitors to return home immediately.

The Gunnison-Crested Butte Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) has followed suit and is currently not encouraging visits to the valley. “While it is painful to make this decision, we have decided to ask visitors that if you have plans to visit between now and April 12, that you cancel them,” said the TAPP website. “This is for the safety of our local population as well as the safety of our visitors who we often refer to as ‘temporary locals.’”

With most businesses in town closed with the exception of essential businesses Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce executive director Ashley UpChurch urges the community to show its support for our local business. “Everyone is feeling concerned. I don’t think there is a business in this town that is safe from this virus, just like there isn’t an individual who is safe from this virus,” she said. “We have to come together and anything you can do to support our local businesses is massively appreciated. They’re feeling a huge crunch and it’s going to show this off-season.”

UpChurch recommends saving your quarantine food and ordering takeout or delivery from local restaurants. She also recommends ordering big gift cards now from our local businesses to help carry them through the off-season—“Big, like you’re taking your family out for Christmas dinner,” she stresses. UpChurch also encourages big tipping, to help employees as they begin to feel the repercussions of decreased hours and wages over the next several months.

Many retail businesses in town facing closure due to the health order have implemented creative methods for takeout/delivery service, like Mountain Tails. “Mountain Tails continues to stay open, serving our community and furry friends,” said store manager Brandon Johanns. While in-store shopping is not allowed, the store has made curbside service available, where customers can call in and have their order delivered curbside or to their cars.

“It just feels like we’re going to off-season business as usual, but just starting three or four weeks earlier,” said Aaron Tomcak of Mountain Spirits Liquor. He did say that while some orders have been put in and come through this week, some trucks are not delivering right now. “We’re trying to keep the shelves stocked,” he said. Mountain Spirits has modified its store hours slightly, but is also delivering, “anywhere, down past Crested Butte South if need be,” Tomcak added. The store has initiated a five-person limit, employers are wearing gloves and adhering to a thorough cleaning of door knobs, handles, cash register and countertops. “We’re doing our best to stay clean,” said Tomcak. He also said that his employees are in an off-season schedule, but he’s trying to keep them all at least three-quarters of a normal shift schedule, if not full.

Other establishments are feeling the strain of limited employees among high customer demand to stock up on groceries and supplies, including Clark’s Market. Clark’s market director Will Stevens has been scrambling to meet the demand of customers. “I’m down about 10 employees,” he said earlier this week as some employees have made the choice to self-isolate at home. “Every moment has been spent trying to put product on shelves.” Sanitizing goods, cleaning goods, paper towels and toilet paper have been high demand items, he said.

However, on a Wednesday morning update, Stevens shared that he had seen a significant drop in customers and sales in the last 24 hours now that folks have stocked up and pantries are full for the time being. Stevens also said that Clark’s distributers are still in business. “We continue to order every opportunity we get and will continue to do that moving forward.”

Stevens and his employees are also taking extra precautions to sanitize the store, sanitizing surfaces, carts, bathrooms, etc. every two hours, and employees are all wearing gloves. “We’re taking every measure we can to ensure the health of our customers,” he said.

A list of current open and closed businesses in town can be found on the Crested Butte/Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce’s website, and the chamber has also been gathering state and national resources for disaster assistance loans that could be utilized by the local workforce. More than 55 businesses submitted their projected loss to Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade on Monday, UpChurch said. Governor Polis then used the collected data to apply for Small Business Administration disaster relief. “We hope to hear soon,” UpChurch said. “That will hopefully open up funds for our businesses and those in surrounding counties.” The chamber is still looking into other local opportunities to help businesses, and UpChurch said any business looking for updates, regardless of chamber membership, is welcome to email her at director@cbchamber.com.

The economic crisis is just beginning

Gunnison County commissioners understand and support that the health crisis created from the COVID-19 virus is top priority. But they also say the economic crisis resulting from the health crisis will need a similar mobilization.

Commissioner Jonathan Houck said he has been in contact with the offices of federal elected officials such as senator Michael Bennet and congressman Scott Tipton. “Federal legislators need to understand that the action they take can’t just be for things like the big airlines,” he said. “They need to make it work for us. Our entire community economy is being shut off.”

Houck said he is working to have the feds allow employees of the nearby public land agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, BLM and Parks Department work with the community and incident command and still be paid their federal salary and benefits. “They know the community and they train with us so it makes sense,” he said.

Commissioner John Messner said the economic emergency piece is in the earliest stages but they are brainstorming ways local businesses can tap into funds. He is focused on state and regional opportunities. Part of the challenge is compiling all the resources.

The commissioners have asked the ICELab to lead the local economic and business efforts for dealing with the current crisis and recovery. “We’re working with the county and the Tourism Association and a bunch of different people to make sure we’re getting good information out there,” said ICELab director David Assad from an empty ICELab this week. The ICELab is currently providing updates and resources for both employers and employees on the county’s COVID-19 page, under the Business Resources tab: https://www.gunnisoncounty.org/938/Coronavirus-COVID-19.

Currently listed on the site are options regarding paid sick leave, unemployment insurance benefits and wage claims with the Colorado Department of Labor and Unemployment, the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Colorado Small Business Development Center.

The ICELab is also working on creating industry subgroups for businesses, elected officials, resources and consultants to join and discuss solutions and support during this uncertain time. The ICELab will be coordinating weekly video meetings for various industries so, for example, “Retailers can get together, electronically, to talk about how this is affecting them and how they are finding the best ways to deal with those problems they’re facing right now,” said Assad. Once created, the ICELab will share updates on the county’s COVID-19 business resources page.

Colorado attorney general Phil Weiser released a statement this week applauding businesses that have refunded or issued credit for cancelations, and urges others to follow suit. “To do their part, businesses can act responsibly by providing refunds or credits to consumers who will not be able to use their services, whether hotel reservations, airline travel or other areas where accommodations can be made. I commend the many businesses that have already taken the lead by honoring the need to curtail travel and large events. For those who have yet to do so, I would strongly encourage them to act quickly. As for any businesses that promise refunds or credits and fail to deliver on such promises, we will quickly investigate any such conduct and be ready to take action to protect consumers,” he said in a news release.

“Finally, I recognize that this public health emergency is hurting businesses and their employees, especially Colorado’s small businesses. We all need to pull together to support one another and we stand ready to consider appropriate measures to support those who are hurt during this crisis,” Weiser concluded.

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