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Boulder businesses treading water as City Council discusses next steps of coronavirus response

Slightly less stringent public health orders likely soon, but city and employers need more money fast

Michelle Vargo is filmed by Ella Gross at Bliss Boulder. Michelle and Hanna Harem, co-owners of the store, hope that making videos for their website will help sales. Boulder City Council set to discuss how it can help small businesses, renters facing costs that are impossible to meet because of coronavirus.
(Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Michelle Vargo is filmed by Ella Gross at Bliss Boulder. Michelle and Hanna Harem, co-owners of the store, hope that making videos for their website will help sales. Boulder City Council set to discuss how it can help small businesses, renters facing costs that are impossible to meet because of coronavirus. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Mother’s Day on May 10 could be a sign of hope for Hanna Harem’s Pearl Street gift shop Bliss Boulder.

With mandated business closures due to the coronavirus pandemic and practically empty downtown shopping cores across the state and country, the store’s co-owner has been able to generate between one and four sales a day over the phone and online, through a website that was just recently established.

“We are just hoping for whatever we can get, any sort of foot traffic, people coming in to buy things for Mother’s Day especially,” Harem said, adding the store normally conducts “dozens and dozens of sales” a day.

At the same time, Harem is still waiting to hear whether applications for employer funding made available through either of two federal programs will be accepted, as the U.S. Senate on Tuesday passed a bill to inject billions more into a small business assistance program after the first unprecedented round of financing was quickly exhausted.

“I mean, it depends on if we get that funding or not. It’s going to be a big struggle. I’m hoping we will not have to end up filing for bankruptcy later in the fall,” Harem said.

Jonathan Colby’s Boulder business, Rage Unlimited, which produces custom promotional products, is in the same boat. The company has gone back and forth for weeks with its bank over a payroll protection program application without success as of Tuesday. While Rage has pivoted to creating and selling face coverings specially branded for local businesses, revenues are down by about 90% over the last month, Colby said.

“It’s totally unbelievable, when it’s specifically designed as a small business plan, a small business bailout,” Colby said. “We’re definitely facing having to cut salaries to some degree, not paying rent, which we’ve already alerted our landlord that we’re going to take a month or two off, which is pretty expensive.”

While the U.S. House now has to consider replenishing the small business relief program, Boulder Mayor Sam Weaver delivered word of a potential lifeline for retailers in a City Council meeting later in the evening: a pending relaxation of public health orders.

But it will not be business as usual any time soon. The governor’s office this week announced to mayors including Weaver that Colorado would probably be shifting to a slightly less stringent “safer at home” order in the coming days, and could allow retail businesses to make curbside transactions outside storefronts and perhaps let customers into stores again in May. However, strict social distancing guidelines will still need to be followed.

Enforcement inside businesses not willing or able accommodate appropriate physical human spacing will be necessary, and left up to local governments, Weaver was told by Gov. Polis.

“If there is a systemic lack of social distancing in businesses, he feels there needs to be some kind of consequence,” Weaver said.

Meanwhile, local leaders continue to advocate state and federal agencies provide additional small business relief, as well as assistance with filling municipal coffers. The city is anticipating a loss of at least $28 million, or 10%, of annual revenues excluding utility fees, and has furloughed more than 700 employees.

A letter sent Monday from Weaver and Boulder Chamber CEO John Tayer to Colorado congressmen said a survey of local businesses completed in the past week found a majority, 56%, of respondents reporting needs for help with rent or other occupancy costs, and 43% said they need help financially supporting employees. Eight of 10 responding businesses have had to implement staffing changes due to COVID-19 including reducing hours, wages or furloughing or laying off workers, while nearly a third of businesses with 50 or more employees and just over one-fourth of businesses with two to 49 employees reported layoffs.

“Considering the fact that 31% of respondents are considered ‘essential’ businesses still allowed to operate, this may be an early indication of a substantial shift in local job availability for Boulder as a regional employment hub. It also signals concern for neighboring communities as Boulder has a60% in-commuting workforce,” Tayer and Weaver wrote.

They added federal officials should provide more direct funding to households and $49.95 billion for transportation projects, as the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials has suggested.

“In order to boost the years-long economic recovery that will be necessary once the national emergency subsides, Congress should look to pass a major transportation investment package in the form of surface transportation reauthorization,” the letter stated. “The (Diagonal Highway) multimodal corridor project is a prime candidate for funding, especially the intersection project at Hover Road.”

Testing for the virus remains largely unavailable locally, and the less stringent public health orders likely coming soon for the state will still be rooted in having as many people as possible stay at home, unless leaving or contact with others is absolutely necessary to perform or obtain an essential good or service.

A “fully open” state of the city in regards to public facilities is the fourth and final phase in the local government’s recovery, but it remains far from imminent, and potentially impossible until a vaccine for the virus that causes COVID-19 is available, City Manager Jane Brautigam said. Recreation centers and libraries are likely to remain closed in early May, and a vaccine may not be available until next year.

More information on the restoration of city services will be discussed with Council next week, including a forecast for the city budget and economic rebound.

“I have no clue about when rec centers will be opened,” Brautigam said, explaining social distancing is difficult to maintain at such facilities.

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