County ups COVID grant program for local businesses

Pitkin County officials are laying the groundwork for a grant program that will offer local businesses in Aspen and the county as much as $10,000 for basics like payroll and rent.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock outlined the program for county commissioners Tuesday and said Wednesday he hopes to have it up and running by the end of the month.

“We’re still working out the details,” he said. “It’s meant to help businesses float through slower times (this winter).”

In December, the county announced that instead of the $700,000 it thought it would receive from the federal CARES Act as reimbursement for COVID-19-related expenses, it actually was in line for more than $3.8 million. On Tuesday, Peacock said the county applied for another $500,000 on top of that.

As part of a list in December that included more contact tracing capacity and other ways to support the community, county officials proposed a $500,000 grant program for local businesses that would provide as much as $1,500 per business to fund COVID protective measures like air filters and improved HVAC systems.

But on Tuesday, Peacock said further pressures on the business community since then, including sabotaged natural gas lines last week that prompted a two-day heat and hot water outage at the height of the Christmas season, prompted officials to expand the grant program. The county now says the program will be funded to the tune of $1.325 million, and that businesses can receive as much as $10,000 each depending on need.

“We shifted, basically, because of the extra pressure we’re seeing on the community,” Peacock said Wednesday. “A more generalized approach made sense.”

The county hopes to fund between 130 and 200 individual grants, he said. Businesses in Aspen and Pitkin County will be eligible, and the money likely will be doled out by the Aspen Community Foundation. Officials are still working out how businesses will apply, though it will probably be online, Peacock said.

“I think the difficult time will really hit in January and February, “ Peacock told commissioners Tuesday.

Rules, of course, will apply.

A business must have been operating as of Jan. 1, be open at least 32 weeks a year (in normal years) and have fewer than 25 full-time employees. It must also be in full compliance with the current public health order, and be operating as a viable business, according to proposed rules presented at Tuesday’s work session.

“Relief will be to businesses whose preservation will help combat community deterioration and lessen burdens of government,” according to the proposed rules.

The county plans to help individuals as well, with a $400,000 contribution to local nonprofits like Aspen Community Foundation and school resource offices in Aspen and Basalt.

Pitkin County also has proposed spending $100,000 on a “navigator” program that will help local businesses and individuals tap into local, state and federal resources for COVID-19 relief, Peacock said. It will function as a resource for renters or landlords who need rent subsidies, for example, or a business with any COVID-related questions.

Nan Sundeen, director of Pitkin County’s Health and Human Services Department, said Wednesday that a segment of the community remains in need of food and are underemployed. Some, who used to work two jobs, are now barely making it on one part-time job, she said.

Last week’s gas outage brought more of those people to the attention of Sundeen’s staff, who answered many misplaced phone calls from people looking for heaters or Black Hills Energy but ended discovering people who needed food or rent assistance, Sundeen said. At the time, department employees were already making phone calls to between 80 and 100 disabled county residents to make sure they were OK.

“People were really cold, with one heater in one room,” she said, with some needing to be placed into local hotels that provide discount rates. “They were scared about their property … (and) that pipes would burst.”

Restaurant workers in the community, in particular, are hurting, Sundeen said. The Christmas week interruption hit that sector, who rely on the cash economy, in Aspen and the county hard.

“There was no work,” she said.

In three decades working for Pitkin County, Sundeen said she’d never seen Aspen go through “this boom-and-bust” before. Add to that skyrocketing virus case counts not being seen in neighboring counties — Pitkin County’s incidence rate hit 2,100 per 100,000 people Wednesday — and the near future looks bleak.

“Without the capacity to bring people in … we’re teetering on some trouble,” Sundeen said.

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