At the behest of local business owners, Archuleta County is making moves to request a variance from Gov. Jared Polis’ safer-at-home restrictions, in an effort to open some businesses sooner than the state timeline.
“We need to get back up and running,” said Jason Cox, owner of Riff Raff Brewing. “If we kill our economy for the entire summer, there’s going to be a good number of businesses gone permanently.”
Cox said he has been in contact with 15 or so local business owners around Archuleta County who started an effort to request a variance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Nearly half of Colorado’s 64 counties have requested a variance, according to a report in The Denver Post, yet only a few have been approved, such as in Moffat, Rio Blanco, Eagle, Mesa and Sedgwick counties.
Recently, Montezuma County’s request for a variance to reopen retail stores and gyms at limited capacity was denied. The state health department said it denied the application because of increasing local cases and high infection rates in New Mexico.
Andrea Phillips, town manager for Pagosa Springs, said the variance request received the support from Pagosa Springs Town Council and the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners this week.
“They understand businesses here are struggling,” Phillips said. “And we’re not seeing the case rates other places are seeing.”
As of Thursday, Archuleta County, with a population of about 13,700 people, had reported only eight confirmed cases of coronavirus. A call to Pagosa Springs Medical Center was not returned Friday.
As communities across Colorado start to reopen the economy, some in Archuleta County want to accelerate that pace.
Archuleta County’s biggest attraction – The Springs Resort & Spa – is shut down because of the public health order. Calls to owner David Dronet were not returned.
Cox said 50% of the jobs in Archuleta County are tied to the hospitality and tourist industry, and those business owners and employees have been suffering since most stores were shut down in March.
At Riff Raff Brewing, the jobs of 80 or so people hang in the balance, with most people furloughed. Cox said the brewery sees 80% of its annual profits from June to September, and offering just take-out and delivery won’t make up for losses.
“Not many companies, especially independent restaurant operators, can survive a month or two without cash coming in,” he said.
Chris Blas, owner of Sushi Fusion, said his business was operating at an 80% loss when the shutdown first happened, but has since improved to about 50%. Still, he worries about the 12 or so employees he had to furlough.
“These employees are having a much harder times surviving than we as business owners,” he said.
Archuleta County’s variance request would allow businesses such as restaurants, bars, the hot springs, gyms and churches to reopen sooner than Polis’ timeline, which for some, like restaurants, is up in the air.
But first, the request needs the support of San Juan Basin Public Health and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.
A spokeswoman with SJBPH said the agency had not received a variance request as of Friday afternoon. Cox said he hoped to send the request to SJBPH on Friday or Monday. A request for comment from the Southern Ute tribe was not returned.
The variance request must then receive approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Those in support of the variance in Archuleta County argue people are already starting to visit the town, and the economy can’t remain shut down forever amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The issue for many communities across the country is balancing public safety with reopening the economy.
Jacob Miskimens, owner of CrossFit Pagosa, said he already has a reopening strategy in place that would include social distancing of 8 to 10 feet, temperature readings and an intensive daily cleaning schedule.
Classes can have a limited number of people, Miskimens added, to limit human interaction. To reopen safely, he said it takes an effort to adapt to the new norms.
“Just because you’re being told you can’t operate a certain way, doesn’t mean necessarily you have to close your doors,” he said. “When times change, it rarely goes back to normal.”
Blas said Sushi Fusion would operate at 50% capacity for dine-in services, with tables spaced 6 feet apart. The measure would effectively cut the number of customers from about 90 to 55, but he’s willing to make that sacrifice to reopen.
“We won’t reach 100% of our revenue, but if we can get close to 80%, I think that’s a fair compromise for the health and well-being of Pagosa Springs,” he said.
Not everyone is on board with reopening, Cox admitted. There is a contingent of residents who believe the town should stay shut down through the summer to deter tourists from entering the community.
But at some point, businesses need to reopen, he said, and the sooner they can, the sooner they can implement best practices.
“We acknowledge some folks out there are worried,” he said. “But we encourage those folks who are susceptible (to the virus) to stay at home and stay safe.”