The small mom and pop shops that line main streets across Colorado have struggled to keep their businesses afloat as the pandemic continues to hit them. In the small bedroom community of Wellington, just north of Fort Collins, many business owners have spent the last year persevering to keep their doors open, using creativity, innovation and community support.
Kelly DeVries owns Thistle, a small boutique gift shop in town. Her store is small — she's the only employee and she hasn’t been able to pay herself. She did not qualify for the program most politicians tout to help small businesses — the Paycheck Protection Program, which aims to keep employees on payrolls.
“I was intensely angry, frustrated. I felt like there was a ton of cronyism, payouts to large corporations while small business, the backbone of our country, was suffering,” DeVries said.
For all the talk of helping small businesses like hers, she saw very little, even as PPP loans went to large companies, like Shake Shack or the LA Lakers, (which they returned).
Armed with a glass half full attitude, DeVries has tried to focus on the positives.
“One thing that COVID has shown is that in turmoil it brings about creative and innovative solutions that may not have otherwise have come about,” she said.
One of her creative solutions was putting lockers outside the store when she had to cut back hours after her kids went to remote learning. Customers can order online and pick-up whenever they want.
“People love that,” she explained. “It gave me hope for small business for the future, because entrepreneurs and techies they’re the ones that come up with the most ingenious solutions during times of heavy pressures.”
She’s also felt support on the local level from her “tiny town.” People here have rallied to help small businesses, because they’re invested in their neighbors, not just the business.
Catty-corner to Thistle, on Cleveland Avenue, Tom Casabona, owner of Papa’s Table restaurant agrees.
“I feel that I’m actually doing better in a small town like Wellington than I would have in a big town,” he said.
The town provided funds to help the restaurant set up outdoor seating and curbside pickup.
“I’m not getting ahead, I’m not really making money, but I’m holding my own. The doors still open, the doors will be open,” he said describing business these days at the restaurant he runs with his wife and two kids.
Unlike DeVries, they did get PPP funds, which helped during some of the toughest times. Even so, it has been a frustrating year, especially for restaurants and bars, as rules and requirements changed throughout the year from 25 percent indoor capacity to 50 percent to having to close indoor dining altogether. It’s been a roller coaster.
Outdoor dining was good in the summer and fall but even with heating, the idea of eating dinner outside in winter isn’t as appealing to a lot of people.
“You have to have the hard times to appreciate the good times. And this is a hard time, this is a hard time for the town, for the country, for myself. For everybody,” he said. “But I’m hoping it’s going to be better in the coming months, it’s going to get much better.”
Much of his hope is pinned on the vaccine rollout.
Many business owners see that as a silver bullet. As more people get vaccinated, they’ll come back to eat, drink, and shop. He and his wife, though, haven’t been called in for their first shots yet.
Further down Cleveland Avenue, at Proper Time Jewelry and Watches, Peter Pronko and his wife have gotten their first shots, with the second coming soon. They founded the store after the former research scientist retired. During the pandemic they’ve kept the repair side of the business open.
“I’m going to keep the retail closed until we’re fully vaccinated and fully immune,” he explained.
He set up a drop off system for repairs right outside the door, so the couple doesn’t really interact with customers anymore. It’s something he misses. For Pronko, it’s been a “depressing situation all the way around.”
And the federal response, which to him has “mainly been gridlock,” hasn’t helped matters. He hopes the new Congress will put constituents first. “Think about the county and work to try to relieve all the difficulties that everyone is facing right now,” would be his message to Washington. “That’s the best advice I could give, but quite frankly I don’t think anybody’s going to listen to it.”
Watching Congress struggle to come to agreement on aid for most of 2020 has left many owners hoping for, but not counting, on Congress. Instead, they are counting on people getting vaccinated. If there are problems with that, well, Casabona knows who will feel the heat.
“Biden says he’s going to vaccinate everybody. So I’m hopeful by the summer and going into the fall things will be good. If they’re not I’m going to put the blame on the Biden administration,” he said noting the Trump Administration was blamed for the initial coronavirus response.
The fall and winter holidays are busy times for his restaurant. They missed out last year, and he doesn't want to miss out again.