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Pandemic pushed hundreds of hospitality workers into unemployment

Restaurants, resorts look for a “recipe for success”
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 6,330 people in Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties have filed for unemployment, according to data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Statistics. Jim Carver, co-owner of Carver Brewing Co., informed employees on March 17 that the popular brewpub would temporarily close to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. “Carvers is the best business in town to weather the storm,” he told furloughed employees. “We have been frugal for 50 years. ... We’re going to weather the storm and come back.”

Dave Woodruff says laying off his employees was one of the hardest things he’s ever done. The general manager of El Moro Bar & Tavern, Woodruff is also serving as a leader in recovery efforts for Durango in his role as president of the Durango Chapter of the Colorado Restaurants Association.

“Having to lay everybody off at the same time, and watching people tear up without knowing what tomorrow was going to bring, it’s really hard,” Woodruff said. “We’re really trying. We’re finding out that we’ve got to get creative on how we can try and help restaurants make ends meet.”

Since the pandemic began, 6,330 people in Archuleta, Dolores, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan counties have filed for unemployment, according to data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Statistics.

Of the 31,197 jobs in Durango alone, almost a third have been impacted by furloughs, reduced hours or lost jobs, said Laura Lewis Marchino, executive director of the Region 9 Economic Development District for Southwest Colorado.

Durango’s plans to reopen include allowing bump-outs on Main Avenue while reducing capacity for restaurants and other businesses, and Woodruff said that should help. But for many, these health-conscious measures do not solve the tremendous burden operating a business during the pandemic creates.

“Having a diminished capacity to operate, it’s hugely impactful. ... We’re reducing capacity with the same amount of overhead if not more,” Woodruff said.

Meanwhile, the tourism industry, which accounts for almost a third of economic activity in the region and is especially important in La Plata and San Juan counties, has been especially hard hit. Marchino said the pandemic is likely to have a long-lasting impact on business in the region.

“I believe where it’s really going to be impactful is (the loss) of the destination travelers,” Marchino said.

According to the development district’s most recent report, the tourism sector brings in 26% of the region’s wealth, more than any other industry. This money flows not only to the ski resorts in the mountains but also the shops and restaurants downtown.

“I could say easily probably half of the hotel, just what they’re normally expecting this year, will be half of that,” Marchino said. “And in retail, we’re going to need to be really innovative.”

Still, Marchino said the region was protected somewhat by the full impact of the economic meltdown because it hit during shoulder season. And she’s optimistic that local and regional governments and development associations have all worked together to help the region emerge stronger from the pandemic.

“Territory has not been an issue,” Marchino said. “This crisis has brought people to work together, and I think that is going to continue after this is over.”

When the lockdown orders around the country first began, Anna Peterson, president and founder of Conservation Communications, pulled together a public Google document of aid and community organizations that La Plata County residents could donate to in order to help those who lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic. She said she’s been encouraged by seeing people looking at the document every time she’s logged on, and by the work others are doing to keep the community afloat.

“It’s what I’ve worked on for a long time is putting resources together to do what they can to help others,” Peterson said. “It helps me feel better in times of stress to try and do something good to try and help others.”

Woodruff, who is also on the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, also said he’s seen the municipal government and other organizations work together to find a path to a safe recovery, which he hopes will eventually include bringing everyone back into their old jobs.

“We’re trying to find a way to open as quickly as possible, but also as safe as possible,” Woodruff said. “We’re making sure that we’re giving (businesses) the recipe for success.”

Jacob Wallace is an intern for The Durango Herald and The Journal and a student at American University in Washington, D.C.

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