Streets clear out as businesses lay off workers, brace for heavy losses
At one end of Ouray, the neon sign insists the Goldbelt Bar & Grill is open. The only customer at the moment on this weekend afternoon is a crow perched atop the building, cawing to no one.
In the middle of town, Lora Slawitschka moves from room to empty room at the Ouray Chalet, unplugging mini-fridges and televisions. The pennies saved per day on electricity in each of the 32 rooms adds up, the owner figures, and that could prove important since the reservation calendar is painfully open for the foreseeable future.
And at the far end, General Manager Ryan Hein delivers the grim news to housekeepers at Twin Peaks Lodge & Hot Springs. They no longer have jobs. Crying, they climb into a van to be driven home, left to wonder how they will provide for themselves and their families.
The threat of COVID-19 — and health officials’ effort to slow its spread — has emptied out the businesses and streets of Ouray County at a time the community normally teems with families and college students reveling in spring break In the process, it threatens to crater the local economy, which is heavily dependent on visitors piling into hotel rooms and restaurants and filling the registers of retailers.
“It has the potential of being devastating,” said Slawitschka, the second-generation owner of the Ouray Chalet.
After huddling in a virtual meeting with community leaders on March 18, Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery issued a trio of orders two days later. All hotels, motels, campgrounds, vacation rentals and other shortterm lodging facilities were closed to everyone but primary residents and those working in the county. Bars, theaters, gyms and businesses offering non-essential personal services such as hair salons were shuttered, and restaurants were limited to take-out orders only. Mass gatherings of 10 or more people were prohibited. Visitors were encouraged to leave as soon as possible and discouraged from coming if they were considering a trip to Ouray County.
The fallout of the orders, which are in effect until at least April 30, was immediate. Businesses reduced hours, laid off staff or closed altogether. Restaurants which had initially responded to COVID-19 by spreading tables farther apart scrambled to create take-out menus and offer delivery services. So many people are out of work across Colorado that state labor officials on Tuesday asked those applying for unemployment benefits to do so on certain days based on their last name to reduce the load on the system.
Businesses have begun wrestling with their insurance companies over coverage of loss of business. While business interruption policies provide compensation in response to fires, floods and other natural disasters, proprietors say they are finding their policies don’t cover economic losses from a pandemic.
Hoteliers, which stand to absorb some of the heaviest financial losses of any group of businesses in the county, reacted in various ways to the shutdown of their properties.
Hotel Ouray co-owner Patty Biolchini said she hopes it will help officials control the spread of the virus and keep the community healthy.
“We’ve been through some tough times. We’ll get through this,” she said.
Slawitschka said the fact the the city of Ouray closed the Hot Springs Pool two weeks ago should have been an indicator that more drastic measures were coming. It’s why she began reducing staff in early March, and is now down to just her manager and herself.
She said she’s grateful the closure happened now rather than in December, when the Ouray Ice Park opens and draws ice climbers, or June, when the summer tourist season amplifies.
“We’ll all come through this,” she said. “But it’ll be difficult, that’s for sure.”
Adam Dubroff, owner of Ridgway Lodge and Suites, called the order closing lodging “very unreasonable.”
Ridgway Lodge and Suites currently houses two Ouray Silver Mines employees and two construction workers who are busy on the expansion of the Ridgway Public Library. They fall under the category of “essential workers” and can remain where they are.
Two construction workers who are working on the remodel of the Ouray County Courthouse said they and all of their fellow coworkers are driving back and forth from their homes as far away as Grand Junction, citing problems with finding food in Ouray.
State officials have said they’re seeking hotel owners willing to lease their premises to the government for use by first responders and medical professionals, as well as for potential emergency housing and quarantine sites.
County Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd said some local lodgers have expressed interest in the offer but didn’t know if any have applied.
Hein, from Twin Peaks, said he hopes there’s still a business community to which tourists can return once the threat of the new coronavirus subsides.
“There’s not enough money the government can pump in to keep the economy going,” he said.
The one positive takeaway, he said, is that the closure order came now, during a less-busy shoulder season. But that wasn’t enough to prevent him from laying off Twin Peaks’ entire staff of 40 employees on Friday, in response to the county’s order to close lodging to tourists.
“They don’t how they’re going to take care of their family. They don’t know how they’re going to survive,” he said of his housekeeping crew.
“They have no nope now. None.”
At least one business is proceeding with normal operations while taking extra precautions to try to keep employees healthy.
Ouray Silver Mines is in the middle of a hiring process as mining operations are scheduled to increase in the coming months. CEO Brian Briggs said he is still actively hiring people, then requiring them to quarantine for 14 days.
Briggs said in an attempt to avoid close proximity in the office, during transportation for out-of-county employees as well as from Ouray up to the mine site, half of Ouray Silver Mines’ employees are staying home right now.
The company has a protocol of wiping down vehicles that go up to the site with chlorine to ensure they are well-sanitized.
“It makes trying to run a business interesting,” Briggs said. “We are weathering the storm and doing the best we can for our people.”
Ouray city leaders called a special meeting of the Community Economic Development Committee on Tuesday to begin brainstorming ways the city can offer financial relief for businesses and identify opportunities for those businesses to seek assistance from federal and state governments and private lenders. The committee is expected to come up with a package of recommendations to the City Council by its April 6 meeting.
The nearly 5o people who virtually attended the two-hour meeting kicked around ideas ranging from sales-tax holidays and suspending utility payments to providing zero-interest loans and creating an insurance pool for businesses.
Mayor Pro Tem John Wood said the more the city can help property owners retain their tenants now, the better off everyone will be in the long run.
“The more we can keep everyone up on their feet, the more we can run when we get through this,” he said.
City Finance and Administrative Services Director Melissa Drake pointed out the city can’t spend lodging tax money in other ways or use it to prop up other areas of the city’s budget, noting it’s a tax approved by voters for the purpose of marketing the town to tourists. Heidi Pankow, director of industry, media and consumer engagement for the Ouray Tourism Office, said the OTO has suspended all acting marketing efforts and is instead focused on sharing inspirational messages and preparing to shift its messaging to welcome tourists back when it’s safe to do so.
City Administrator Justin Perry said he is working with Drake and others to develop an emergency preparedness budget over the next week.
The Community Economic Development Committee will meet again on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, County Treasurer Jill Mihelich told the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday in response to a high volume of calls she has already received that she is taking measures to allow for some flexibility for individuals and businesses having trouble paying property taxes this year due to COVID-19’s economic effects.
While deadlines for paying property taxes will be the same and tax sales are still scheduled for November, Mihelich will allow for partial payments when they first become due in July to “soften the blow.”
Mihelich said it is important tax funds be collected and distributed to special districts who need the money to operate, and she is making contact with representatives of the districts about their specific needs.
Mihelich said she is currently doing the job of 1 1/2 people, and her software is not equipped for allowing partial payments, so she urged people who opt to make those partial payments to make them high enough to “make it worth my time.”
Commissioners agreed her measures were appropriate and Commissioner Don Batchelder asked her to post the policy, once it is fully laid out, on the county website.