Castle Rock businesses work to adapt amid COVID-19's impact

Community urged to continue supporting small, local businesses

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More than two years ago, Andrew Wasson and his family took a leap into the restaurant industry to open the Castle Rock brewpub Wild Blue Yonder Brewing Co., which quickly became a popular stop in town.

Now, with COVID-19 a global pandemic and Gov. Jared Polis' March 16 order closing all restaurants and bars to dine-in services, the future of the industry is uncertain, Wasson said.

One day after the governor's order, Wasson was cautiously optimistic about Wild Blue's long-term health but frank about the first day transitioning to the new way of doing business.

“Honestly, it's really slow today,” Wasson said with a deep, nervous breath.

Colorado eateries can still provide delivery and takeout services, including alcohol as of March 20, which has sent food establishments rushing to shift their model and urging people to continue supporting them.

On March 17, Wasson quickly tallied the number of orders the business received as of 4:30 p.m. It got close to 10, he thought. He hoped it would pick up.

“This will be devastating for a lot of local businesses and it's really important for everyone to really get out there, support all local businesses,” Wasson said. “Because the impact of this is so far-reaching.”

'Business that you never get back'

While restaurants took an early hit from the pandemic's fallout, scores of small businesses are also feeling the effects. The governor's order later extended to casinos, theaters, gyms, tattoo parlors, hair salons and ski operations.

The Outlets at Castle Rock, a significant contributor to the town's sales tax revenue, shut down until March 30.

A long-anticipated Whole Foods in town delayed its grand opening from April 2 to a to-be-determined date.

For Mark and KC Neel, who run Castle Rock Bike and Ski shop downtown, the closure of ski resorts, particularly during spring break, made a significant dent in sales.

Last year their store saw $13,000 in rental sales throughout spring break and $14,000 the year before. This year they refunded $3,600 in prepaid rentals the week of March 16 and watched as most other rental appointments got canceled.

“It's a pretty big blow for us for one week,” Mark said. “It's a lot like the restaurants, where it's just business that you never get back.”

In a normal year, they might expect another $15,000 in rental revenue through the month of April. That's less likely with ski resorts shuttered. Foot traffic in the downtown and at the store has dipped, KC said.

The Neels are still open, ready to offer bike repairs and sell product. With ample trails in town and people who are social-distancing eager for activities, Mark hopes bike repair business holds up. Although, the Neels have adopted the term "physical distancing" as a reminder social distancing does not mean people should not connect with each other. 

The shop also offers snowshoe rentals, perfect for Colorado's snowy March and April months. Customers are buying gift cards and visiting the store, which is regularly sanitized.

“We still see people coming in the door and we're grateful for that,” KC said. “We're not scrambling. I'm sure there are a lot of businesses that are looking at this in a much more dire situation.”

'A big burden'

In addition to industries shouldering mandated closures, there's also the risk businesses will be exposed to the virus or that employers could catch the illness.

Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray temporarily closed his coffee shop, Crowfoot Valley Coffee, a 20-year town fixture, after learning he'd potentially been exposed to COVID-19 at a convention.

The business was deep cleaned and reopened within a couple days, on limited hours, for to-go orders and delivery. The mayor is self-quarantined, keeping an eye out for symptoms, and hoped to be back on the job by March 25. So far, he's in good health, Gray said.

“The employees have been a dream and so helpful. It's a big burden they have taken on and I could not do it without them,” he said via text on March 20.

Wild Blue knew the closure of sit-down service at restaurants statewide was imminent after watching Denver go first, Wasson said.

“It was really hard to see that coming. Things were happening so quickly and the guidance on restaurants was changing almost on a daily basis, so it was really hard to get ahead of it,” he said.

Moving ahead, the brewpub is experimenting with hours, opening from noon to 8 p.m. and tracking market reaction in that timeframe. Wasson is focused on keeping full-time staff actively employed.

“We're trying really, really, really hard to keep as many of our core group as possible,” he said.

Wild Blue is now offering takeout and delivery orders for food, drinks and beer crowlers within a five-mile radius.

Wasson is grateful the business generated enough financial cushion to continue operating for the time being, but he's still looking to the state and federal government programs that can help small businesses offset losses.

How to help

Gray said the town is working closely with the Castle Rock Economic Development Council, which is working with Downtown Alliance, to monitor what loans, grants and other assistance will be available for businesses hurt by the pandemic.

The federal government declared Colorado a disaster area, meaning many small businesses may be eligible for U.S. Small Business Administration loans. The state also offers a layoff-prevention program and a work share program.

“The town is doing what they can. The town is mainly run on sales tax and the longer this goes on the harder it's going to hit not only our businesses but our community,” Gray said. “It's going to get hard to run our day-to-day operation the way we want to. We'll do it no matter what, we'll figure it out, but it may not be the way we want to.”

EDC President and CEO Frank Gray said it's too early to predict what the economic impact will be from COVID-19.

“But we're already having some businesses close their doors in anticipation of some of the challenges that they foresee going forward with customers, especially in retail business,” he said.

Many businesses have altered their business model and stayed open in some capacity. A small fraction of business closures were temporary, total shutdowns. Primary employers seem to be transitioning well to remote working scenarios, Frank Gray said.

“It's been really neat though to see downtown businesses adapt amid this really challenging time,” Director of the Downtown Alliance Kevin Tilson said.

Both men encouraged takeout and curbside pickups at eateries, buying gift cards and merchandise from business. Leave a review online to help a business out, they said. Residents can call their favorite local business and ask how to help, Wasson, the Neels and town officials said.

“Be especially patient, because a lot of these businesses are operating with limited staff,” Tilson said.

KC Neel, who's also president of the Downtown Merchants Association, said businesses have been impressed and grateful for the community support already, and she hopes it stays sustained.

“I think there's a lot of positive things that are starting to come out of this. I think there's been a big shockwave of, `Oh my god, I can't believe this is going down,' but we're really getting to see the resourcefulness of local governments,” Frank Gray said.

Mayor Gray is “not usually a bailout type of person,” but he does believe the government needs to support businesses, particularly if the outbreak escalates. Public support, he said, will be key in warding off more serious economic hardships.

“I really believe our town is up for this, up for the challenge,” Gray said. “If not, they'll see a lot of businesses go under.”

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