Virus spreads, but so does confidence A BizWest Special Report

Just when Coloradans start to think there’s a light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, it turns out instead to be an onrushing train.

Restaurants had returned to inside dining, albeit socially distanced, and cities in the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado were helping them make room for more outdoor seating. Grocery shelves were beginning to look more normal, without the empty spaces where rolls of toilet paper used to be. Businesses were learning to strike a profitable balance between in-office and work-from-home production.

But then came the spike in cases, highlighted by Gov. Jared Polis’ startling report on Nov. 20 that one in 49 Coloradans is contagious with the novel coronavirus.

What has resulted could be as tumultuous as the aftermath of the presidential election.

By Thanksgiving, 20 Colorado counties including Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer and Weld had moved to elevated restrictions based on “severe risk” — including prohibiting restaurants from offering indoor dining and limiting gyms to 10% of capacity. The aim, Polis said, is to do everything possible to avoid having to impose a full-scale lockdown.

In Weld County, Polis said, only three intensive-care unit beds and no regular hospital beds remained. However, that county immediately released a statement saying it wouldn’t enforce many of the restrictions. Polis responded that Weld either take the new data-driven steps or come up with its own mitigation plan in cooperation with the state.

Will the return of near-shutdown conditions deal a mortal blow to the state’s economy? Or are there silver linings?

Depends on who you ask.

Three days before Polis’ Nov. 20 press conference, he had received a letter from the Colorado Restaurant Association demanding that he “do everything within your power to avoid shutting down restaurants or placing further restrictions upon them.” The industry and its workers, restaurant owners say, are unfairly bearing the brunt of blame for the pandemic.

However, those tuning in to BizWest’s Boulder Valley Real Estate Conference on Nov. 19 heard a more upbeat assessment. Lauren Hansen, chief executive of local multiple listing service IRES, told the panel that “the impact on residential real estate has been fascinating to observe.” After the stay-at-home orders in the pandemic’s early stages put a major damper on the number of deals being made, Hansen said, the Boulder Valley saw a surge of new listings in May followed by a record June. As of October, Hansen said, new listings are up 23.1%,

The reason, she said, is a factor that remains a constant despite COVID-19: quality of life. Boulder and Fort Collins were among the top five in U.S. News & World Report’s 2020 ranking of the best places to live.

Many businesses are saving money on leased office space by having more employees work from home, but that benefit comes with a downside. Mark Woulf, senior manager for economic vitality and business services for the city of Boulder, said that the city is facing a substantial loss of sales-tax and parking revenue as well as a 12% decline in construction value.

Tourism is soldiering on, said Donna Carlson, president of the Estes Chamber of Commerce.

“Knowing that we might have this escalation, I sent a message to our members saying we’re going to do everything we can in the interest of commerce. We have a list of holiday activities on the website, trying to attract business to those businesses that are still functioning.

“Thankfully, retail is open and lodging is still open.”

A business impacts survey conducted in August by the Northern Colorado Regional Economic Development Initiative (NoCoREDI) found that 38% of respondents had created plans to manage at least one shutdown scenario and 24% of the businesses surveyed didn’t believe their business would be impacted by any increased restrictions. However, 30% said they had less than three months of expected revenue and financial resources left.

A report issued by the Colorado Secretary of State’s office and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Leeds School of Business found that 8,659 businesses went under in the second quarter of 2020, a 5.2% increase from the previous year, and new-business filings saw a 7.8% decline. However, the report also showed increasing confidence among business leaders who have been impacted by COVID-19 and the shrinking economy. The leaders posted a 44.3 on a scale of 100 on Leeds’ Business Confidence Index, up from a record low 29.7 during the first quarter. In Leeds’ third-quarter report, that confidence level had risen to 47.9.

And new businesses continue to open.

In the past few months, Brighton welcomed the Cinn-a-Brew coffee and cinnamon shop, Wells Concrete and Lupitas Mexican Restaurant. Lavish Nails and Lashes made its debut in Broomfield. Fort Collins saw Stodgy Brewing and Wonder Tea open their doors, and a Longmont branch of Boulder-based Alfalfa’s Market opened in a space formerly occupied by a Lucky’s Market.

Sushi purveyor Blofish and Shakti Lash Studio were unveiled in Boulder. Piripi brought Spanish cuisine to Erie, while nonprofit Curry Without Worry opened in Loveland.

The cannabis industry has seen a surge as well. Even as the pandemic set in this spring, Colorado dispensaries posted a 46% sales increase over the same day in 2019.

Help is also on the way to help startups as well.

Boulder-based Techstars, partnering with ZomaLab, Strada Education Network and Colorado Thrives, is launching an accelerator program to boost startup companies that hope to develop products and services that address the “realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the long-term future needs of the global workforce,” said Techstars managing director Taylor McLemore.

Colorado State University’s College of Business has launched Pivot Larimer County, a series of free, faculty-led, workshops and video resources made possible by a $200,000 grant from Larimer County, which in turn received funding from the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund.

The city of Fort Collins invited food and beverage businesses to apply for financial assistance through Phase 3 of a $1.8 million Small Business Assistance Program, and the city of Loveland’s Economic Development Department established a $550,000 rent relief fund. Weld County also invited businesses to apply for grants through a Business Recovery Program.