Service Workers And Business Owners Grapple With More Economic Hardship As Colorado Counties Shut Down (Again)

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Tables set up for diners behind barricades on Larimer Street in Denver, Sept. 30, 2020.

Tighter health safety rules in Colorado have service workers and business owners with their hands up in the air, worried and planning for more economic hardship.

Like more than a dozen other counties, Arapahoe County restaurants will stop indoor dining and fewer people will be allowed inside retailers starting Friday. 

Kathryn Clements works at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Sheridan and said she was already struggling to pay her bills before the new rules were announced. The restaurant reduced its capacity because of earlier restrictions so her hours were cut. But with her hours getting cut even more starting Friday, she’s not sure how she and her boyfriend will make ends meet.

“We have savings that will get us by for the rest of the month, but starting in December, if they don't enact something federally for unemployment, I don't really know what we're going to do,” she said.

She’s considered getting a new job but minimum wage won’t cover her living expenses. Plus, she said she would get more money through unemployment. She hopes the federal government passes another stimulus package.

“I am very grateful for Gov. Polis because he enacted a single one-time payment to unemployed Coloradans,” she said. “Although that will not make a dent for a lot of people, it’s better than nothing.”

She said she’s optimistic that Colorado’s lawmakers will pass an economic relief package during its special session. Although she will be out of work because of the tightened restrictions, she said it needed to be done to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“It's (the government’s) decision to send people home so it also needs to be their decision to help people survive while staying at home,” Clements said.

“It's pretty terrifying because it does not matter what I do or how hard I try or how hard I work or who I talk to or who I call. These things are completely out of my control and for most people … this is my entire life. This is my house and my car and my food and I can't do anything but hope that other people understand the seriousness of this situation.”

Stephen Stassen works as a host at Snooze in Jefferson County, which is also closing dining rooms on Friday.

“It will be interesting to see what they come up with,” Stassen said about a possible relief package from the state.

He said he’s worried about other areas that could lose funding if Colorado provides more money to unemployed people.

Stassen started working at Snooze in July after he lost his retail job during the first shut down. He said the last time Snooze closed indoor dining, they laid off workers like himself.

“I only have probably about a month and a half of funds so I gotta figure something out pretty quick if I'm going to lose the job,” he said. “Unemployment and things are potentially going to help but it's still not a great situation.”

He said he has a friend in Illinois who is financially secure who he could move in with if things get really tight, though he doesn’t want to leave Colorado.

A forced move is exactly what happened to Martin Hirschhorn. He worked as a pastry chef at the Convention Center in downtown Denver before the pandemic. He was out of work when the stay-at-home order happened.

Unemployment wasn’t providing enough money to pay his expenses and the stimulus only helped pay his rent for one month. After that, his landlord would only agree to defer payments for a month.

“I was just kind of eating up savings,” Hirschhorn said.

He moved in with family in New York and has been working at a bagel shop since September.

“It’s not ideal but at least I’m not paying rent so that helps a bit but there's not too much out here either pastry-wise so I'm kind of underemployed,” he said.

In Pueblo, business owners are preparing to revert to the early-pandemic phase. Rising coronavirus cases and a shortage of hospital staff have the county near the “severe risk”  category on the state’s COVID-19 dial.

"We're currently out of any working cash,” said Clerk and Recorder Gilbert Ortiz, who owns the catering and takeout company Chicken and Pasta. He says his family is struggling to stay afloat.

“We're thinking about possibly taking out a loan on the building of our business,” he said. “But we really, really need some kind of stimulus package."

Ortiz said he received grants from the city and PPP loans but they have only been a temporary fix, and he still had to lay off employees. His wife has taken on some of the duties his staff was doing to keep the business functioning.

Cassy Chavez-Gibbons is a waitress and daughter of the owners of The Sunset Inn in Pueblo. She said business has already been slow because people aren't eating out as much. She said the uncertainty about the future of the business is scary.

"It's just really emotional just to wonder what's going to happen to the business my parents had built for the last 40 years,” she said.

Despite a possible shutdown, she said her mom is still concerned about their annual holiday drive, where they provide clothes and toys to children experiencing homelessness.

“It makes me emotional because I know how stressed they are with their whole life and their business and everything that they built, and she's still stressed about how she's going to help 180 homeless kids have a Christmas,” Chavez-Gibbons said.

She said she's not sure whether the restaurant will offer takeout as an option since they didn’t during the first stay-at-home order. She also doesn’t know if it would be worth it to do only takeout.

Beth Gruitch owns several eateries in Denver. Outdoor seating will be limited to people from the same household so she's hoping takeout and investing in tents and heaters for the patio will help get her through winter.

“Losing all of our indoor seating is really tough, especially when the weather hits and starts to come in,” she said. “We've been very fortunate with nice weather. So it's scary. It's really scary.”

CPR’s Sarah Mulholland contributed to this reporting.