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Businesses expect slow start as commerce returns

Details on just what will be allowed remain murky
Evan Schertz, co-owner of Maria’s Bookshop, describes remodeling at the business. The bookstore took the opportunity to put a new roof on the building, refinish floors and improve shelving. Maria’s plans to begin curbside sales next week, but the shop probably will not be ready in time for a Monday opening.

Several Durango businesses are preparing to reopen next week, but confusion remains among shopkeepers and public health officials about guidelines or restrictions that will guide commerce as COVID-19 restrictions slowly ease.

Peter Schertz, co-owner of Maria’s Bookshop, expressed a common frustration found among several Durango business owners: “What is it Thursday? And I’m still not really sure what’s allowed Monday. I’m not sure what Monday holds.”

San Juan Basin Public Health could offer little clarity Thursday. Claire Ninde, SJBPH spokeswoman, said the department was still waiting on guidance and clarification from Gov. Jared Polis’ office on how commerce will be conducted Monday and what restrictions will be in place.

“According to what the governor released, it looks like retail will open curbside, but we have no guidance on what that should look like,” Ninde said in an email Thursday to The Durango Herald.

A flyer from SJBPH said the agency is waiting on detailed guidance to go along with the governor’s “safer-at-home” plan and cannot provide further information about what restrictions might be lifted or how specific businesses will be affected.

But the flyer added that guidance from the governor’s office on its safer-at-home plan is expected before Monday.

But she added in her email, “Businesses cannot reopen prior to upcoming guidance and the lifting of the ‘stay-at-home’ order on 4/27/20.”

Emails to Polis’ press team seeking clarity and details about what will be allowed were not returned Thursday.

A news release Polis issued Wednesday said retail businesses can reopen for curbside delivery and phased-in public opening “with strict precautions.”

No details were offered about what “strict precautions” businesses should take or what phased-in opening would allow.

The La Plata County Economic Recovery Team – including Mary Shepherd with the Southwest Colorado Small Business Development Center; Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Business Improvement District; and Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce – said they were issuing best-practice ideas to businesses based on guidelines from SJBPH and best practices around the nation.

Walsworth, in an email for the task force, said, “We are waiting for the state guidelines, which are set to be released late this weekend or Monday. Then our local health department will review these guidelines with local conditions in mind. The task force will then assist businesses in implementing the new requirements, and we will do so by sector.”

He added that many businesses already have basic plans to change operations with public health in mind.

Businesses plan slow reopenings

Evan Schertz, Peter’s son and bookshop co-owner, will be restocking books Monday after a major remodel. He plans to begin curbside service for customers next week, but doesn’t think he’ll make it by Monday, when Polis’ stay-at-home order expires.

Evan Schertz, co-owner of Maria’s Bookshop, expects it will take him two or three days beyond Monday to bring back 411 boxes of books put in storage for a remodel of the bookstore. But he expects curbside sales to begin sometime next week.

He said he will follow guidelines from SJBPH, and his understanding was curbside service could begin Monday. But after hauling 411 boxes of books into storage for the remodel, he thinks it will be a few days before he can bring the books back and reopen the bookshop.

Patti Salomon, co-owner of Salt 360, which has two giant flotation tanks to provide a sensory deprivation environment for stress relief, said she plans to reopen on what were her busiest days before the stay-at-home order – Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Salt 360 will also limit business to six clients daily, half its normal visits.

“We’ll see how people are doing,” she said. “We’ll do a slow opening and judge the climate, and the limits will ensure we have time to make extra cleanings.”

The 2-year-old business began during the 416 Fire, and Salomon said just before the COVID-19 pandemic, it had begun to see rapid growth. Now, she’s unsure that growth will continue after the virus-battered market takes tentative steps to reopening.

Patti Salomon of Salt 360 says the business, which provides sensory deprivation tanks for stress relief, was growing briskly just before the outbreak of COVID-19, now she worries that growth might slow.

“The pace may slow for a while, but some of us think it might be busier than normal. We have no personal contact. It’s completely safe, but in this environment, no one really knows,” she said.

Cathy Wakeman, owner of Animas Trading Co., plans to begin curbside service Monday. But like many Durango merchants, she doesn’t expect brisk business for some time.

“I think people will be cautious, and they may not want to come to stores and touch things,” she said. “A lot of my stuff, you have to see it before you decide to buy it,” she said. “I’m planning to take at least a week, probably a couple weeks, see how things go, before I figure out my schedule.”

Market trumps edicts

Ultimately, Rod Barker, owner of the Strater Hotel, said it is the market reaction to businesses reopening, not any government directive, that will guide him and probably most businesses owners going forward.

Rod Barker, owner of the Strater Hotel, said he’s rented as many as 10 rooms some nights and as few as one or two other nights during the past month as a result of nationwide efforts to limit spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s not just like there’s an edict from somebody that says it’s OK to open. It’s got to be the customers that determine that. And we are so anxious for that to happen. But believe me, it’s, tough. It’s really tough,” he said.

Hotels and motels were not required to close the past month under Polis’ stay-at-home order, and Barker said he rented rooms at the Strater. Some nights had seen as many as 10 room rentals, but other nights, rentals dropped to only one or two.

Staffing challenges also emerged after federal assistance began.

“Getting a staff is much harder than it was before. For instance, today, housekeepers are paid a considerable amount of money to stay home. And in some cases, it’s more money to stay home than it is to come to work, even though we pay aggressively. So we’re having a hard time competing with staying at home and making more money,” he said.

During peak season, the Strater is up to about 80 full-time equivalents, but currently the inn has about 25 FTEs, and much of the core staff and management are working on deep cleans and inventorying Victorian furnishings and antiques.

“We will only gear up in response to the market, and right now, it’s not there. We will gear up eventually, but the market is not there right now. And it isn’t going to be here in the foreseeable future. We’re just not seeing bookings down the road yet. This could last into July, I suspect,” he said.

Karyn Gabaldon, owner of Karyn Gabaldon Arts, doesn’t plan to open until Memorial Day weekend, when the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad plans to begin daily runs to Silverton.

“I don’t want to open yet,” she said. “First of all, I’m 65 years old and my space is not that big and I’m worried about people coming in. And secondly, I don’t think there will be a lot of people coming. Polis just read in a press conference that he doesn’t want people to travel or go to the mountains. So I don’t believe there will be a lot of people coming here. I’m not planning on opening until May 22.”

parmijo@durangoherald.com

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