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Estes Park Businesses, Workers Feel Economic Pain Of COVID-19 As Rocky Mountain National Park Closes

Brett Levin
CC BY 2.0
Estes Park is a tourism economy because it serves as the gateway to Rocky Mountian National Park.

Rocky Mountain National Park is closed until further notice because of the outbreak of COVID-19. This comes after a request from the mayor of Estes Park, a nearby small town that is extremely dependent on the national park’s tourists. 

“We wouldn’t be able to handle the crowds in Estes Park, because of our limited resources, at this time,” said Mayor Todd Jirsa.


Many, including Gov. Jared Polis, suggested hiking and other outdoor activity as a safe way to get out of the house. But in a letter sent to the Department of the Interior on Friday, Jirsa worried about the crowds he saw coming through the town to get to the national park.

“That social distancing wasn’t really happening to the extent that it should have,” he said.

He’s particularly worried about overwhelming the local healthcare system. A third of the town’s population is 65 or older which means they’re at a higher risk for severe sickness from COVID-19. 

“This is not the time. We will get back to a time when we can provide that exceptional guest experience,” Jirsa said. “Please come back and visit our town again, come back and visit the national park when we don’t have this virus and its concerns hanging over our heads.”

Last week, Polis ordered casinos, hotels, restaurants and other businesses to close for 30 days. Within the same week, the Department of Public Health and the Environment extended closures by two weeks, making the end date April 30. This has led to a surge in unemployment claims as business revenues take a hit.

In Estes Park, businesses aren’t as reliant on year-round sales. The town is very much a “tourism economy.”  This time of year usually represents a boost in sales because of spring break, but the real make-it or break-it season is summer.

“It could be worse. This could have been in July or August or September... it still may be,” said Sean Jurgens, owner of the Quality Inn Estes Park. “It hurts, but it could have been worse.”

Jurgens is fairly confident he can keep his 10 full-time employees paid during the shutdown. If it gets extended again, he’s less sure. So, just in case, he has started the application process for the state’s Work-Share program which would allow his employees to get partial unemployment benefits if their hours have to be cut. Workers at the Bird & Jim restaurant and bar just nine minutes away are not as lucky.

If the 40 employees at Bird & Jim get any hours at all, they will be at a “fraction” of full-time, co-owner John Whitmer said. 

The restaurant has switched to a delivery and on-site pickup business model to stay afloat during the shutdown, but the number of people needed and the hours of operation have both been greatly reduced.

Whitmer wants some government support for the losses his business incurs, which he expects to be at least $1 million. He also wants to see a state or federal safety net for his employees.

“We certainly plan for these types of problems in our business and we have a certain padding,” he said.  “But really our employees, you know, these are paid by the hour employees, a lot of them, unfortunately, they do live check to check.”

The owners of Bird & Jim have found themselves wondering whether they should be open at all. They worry that even with all the precautions they have taken, the business still puts people at risk by bringing them in close contact with others.

“The bigger discussion is, how do we help our employees? And how do we help the community?” Whitmer said. “Does it help the community if we stay open?”

Estes Park businesses are uniquely resilient because so much of their revenue comes from the summer tourism months. But in times like these, they’re counting on the kind of community support they saw after the 2013 flood that cut the town off from the outside world and damaged many storefronts, said Keith Pearson, executive director of the  Estes Chamber of Commerce Executive.

“After that flood, all of the roads into Estes Park were closed. And so, we relied completely on the local consumer,” Pearson said.

He said that experience, combined with some preparation for COVID-19 closures, put the town’s businesses in a better position to make it through this, though he does expect many lay-offs. He also knows many businesses will need loans from the federal Small Business Administration to make up for losses. Both Bird & Jim and Quality Inn Estes Park applied to the SBA the morning after the agency announced Coloradan businesses were eligible for disaster loans.

“If we can contain this to the springtime, and it doesn’t have lingering effects as we go through the summer, then our businesses will be fine,” he said.

Businesses may be fine, but nonprofits could take a hit at a time that they’re needed most.

“A healthy economy or the opposite of that impacts donor activity,” said Laurie Dale Marshall. She’s executive director of the Estes Park Nonprofit Resource Center, which connects and supports community organizations throughout town.

Marshall says the nonprofit sector is collaborating with the town’s economic development corporation, government and local businesses to support Estes Park as much as possible. They’re especially interested in finding ways to get people who have lost jobs back into the workforce.

The state is bracing to take a hit in sales tax revenues, as are many local governments. Estes Park expected to take in more than $13 million in sales tax revenue this year, though Mayor Jirsa isn’t worried about losses.

“We’re sitting on a good fund balance and I’m not very concerned about that at this point,” Jirsa said.

The town has been through difficult situations before, like the 2013 flood and wildfires, but he does admit, this is different.

“There's no real end in sight,” he said. “So we’re dealing with this on a day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute basis.”

For the time being, Jirsa’s largest concern is making sure the town’s citizens get through this all right. He expects the Board of Trustees to pass a measure giving people a grace period on their utility bills, to avoid shut-offs for those affected by the virus.

As KUNC’s rural and small communities reporter, I help further the newsroom’s efforts to ensure that all of Northern Colorado’s communities are heard.
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