Tourism without tourists: Grand County businesses grapple with coronavirus closures
The order to “stay at home” is hitting hard in Grand County, an economy dependent on tourists who want to get away.
Grand is a place where almost everyone who wants a job has one, a few good summer or winter months can tide a business over for the year and tourism reigns supreme. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment has skyrocketed, once busy businesses are closed and the county seems like it’s changing faster than the seasons.
Public health officials have made it clear halting travel is one of the best ways to ensure the county’s limited health care resources aren’t overwhelmed. In response, the county has restricted lodging properties and is imploring second-home owners to not visit.
While the biggest drivers of the county’s economy are being told in no uncertain terms to stay away, many businesses want to support their employees and are trying to stay afloat. The next months carry incredible uncertainty for the businesses that make up Grand, but one thing is for sure: They want to be here when it’s over.
Day to day
David Craig has been watching the outbreak from a couple perspectives. He is a general manager at C Lazy U Ranch, the president of the Grand County Tourism Board and a chairman for the Grand Lake Fire Protection District. The full impact of COVID-19 dawned on Craig when the fire chief started describing local preparations for this virus.
“When I began to realize it was hitting our community, I knew business as we know it had kind of changed forever,” Craig said.
C Lazy U Ranch stopped taking reservations March 15 and plans to be closed until at least April 30. While the ranch is closed, it’s still trying to help its roughly 70 employees, Craig said.
“A ranch is many things, but it’s the quality of staff that distinguishes you and makes you go from good to great,” Craig said. “That’s an asset we want to work hard to protect.”
Craig outlined some of the measures the ranch is taking to assist these workers, including complimentary housing for those living on the grounds and three free to-go meals every day. Some staff are also able to continue working.
While the ranch is closed to visitors, the livestock still need fed, facilities need cleaning and the property is being improved. Employees aren’t required to work, but they have the option to get some income performing essential duties. Craig said he is managing decision-making during the constant uncertainty by taking it one day at a time.
“The right thing to do is wait and make the right decisions in the day for the day,” Craig said. “In a couple of weeks, we’ll know if things are improving or deteriorating. Both of those come with a different set of solutions.”
Never Summer Mountain Products, an outdoor goods and apparel store based in Grand Lake, typically closes for only three days a year. As COVID-19 started moving into Colorado, owner Patrick Randall began reconsidering that plan.
In early March, other recreation based businesses in Grand Lake started closing. Then, the ski areas shut down. Winter Park Resort and Granby Ranch subsequently had to lay off more than 1,400 employees combined.
“We decided we needed to close our doors too, and join the rest of the businesses in town to basically not give any other reason for folks to come up here and spread the virus,” Randall said. “Given that we live in an aging community with very few health care options up here, it felt like the right thing to.”
Gov. Jared Polis’ executive order closed non-essential businesses, but allowed some room for recreation. This led to an unwanted surge of visitors to rural communities as the restrictions rolled out.
With the closures of ski areas, Berthoud Pass became crowded with skiers. Even though the National Park Service removed entrance fees, Rocky Mountain National Park had to close down because of the concern of drawing more tourists to rural communities.
Randall said seeing the national park shut down reassured him that he made the right decision. While Never Summer is closed, it is offering products online with curbside pickup and monitoring calls and emails.
- Visit http://www.coloradoui.gov or call 303-318-2800 to register for unemployment.
- The Frisco Workforce Center is answering questions, troubleshooting and offering resources for customers facing unemployment in Grand County. For more, call 970-668-5360 or email email@example.com.
- Grand County has a list of employee resources available at http://www.workingrand.com/covid-resources/employee-resources/.
For business owners:
- The Grand Foundation is accepting applications for the Emergency Small Business Assistance Fund. More info at http://www.grandfoundation.com/Grants.
- Grand County has a list of business owner resources at local, state and federal levels. For more, http://www.workingrand.com/covid-resources/business-owners/.
A new problem
Up until this crisis, Grand County was facing a different challenge when it came to local business: a scarce workforce.
In September, the county’s unemployment rate fell to 1.6%, which tied for the lowest monthly jobless rate ever recorded in the county, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Even in February, unemployment only reached 2.2% with 232 people seeking jobs out of a workforce of more than 10,300. While these low numbers were good news for workers, business owners struggled to find sufficient staffing and it restricted expansion.
According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, 448 unemployment claims were filed in Grand County during the last week of March alone, and claims totaled 546 for the month.
Industries filing the highest number of claims across the state include accommodation and food, health care and social services, entertainment and recreation and retail trade, industries that account for many of the jobs in Grand County. According to the US Census Bureau, roughly 40% of the county’s employees work in one of these industries.
Randall has about five employees right now. He said that even before the paycheck protection program, a federal business loan program, he made the decision to keep paying staff for scheduled hours as long as possible.
“Employees are our greatest asset and we want to make sure they’re supported as we walk this out,” Randall added.
Will it bounce back?
For C Lazy U Ranch, Never Summer and other businesses in the county, recreation could again become the county’s greatest draw. The Grand County Tourism Board is banking that the county’s outdoor emphasis will appeal to tourists wanting to get outside once the coronavirus shutdown is over.
While the tourism board is following government regulations, Grand County is still advertising its brand as a return to nature and the outdoors. Craig is optimistic that once social isolation ends, Grand County will see its much needed boost.
“Grand County is defined by fresh open spaces, fresh air, things to do outside and a wholesome culture,” he said. “This is going to be the ideal destination. People will not want to explore a city as much as they’ll want to explore open spaces.”
The economic effects of COVID-19 are already palpable, but what this means for the long term is not yet understood. Much of that will likely depend on when folks can “return to normal.”
“This is one of the hurdles the ranch will have to overcome in its 100 year history,” Craig said. “It’s something we have to get through and something we have to get through together.”
With enough support, there is hope that the tenacity of businesses can persist until tourism returns.
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Kacey Green, a rancher in Moffat County, doesn’t buy her beef at the grocery store.