Blind-sided Aspen area businesses seek answers through haze of COVID-19 responses
As Aspen businesses blindsided by the coronavirus continued Wednesday to assess the damage that’s been done so far by the economic impacts of coronavirus, they also are tasked with a future holding more questions than answers.
“Everybody needs to help out,” Rob Mobilian, who founded the upscale Piñon’s restaurant in 1988, said Wednesday. “The insurance companies, the landlords, everybody’s gotta do their part and figure out something.”
On Tuesday morning, servers in Aspen’s service industry woke up with at least one fewer job.
Gov. Jared Polis on Monday ordered restaurants and bars to cease in-dining operations, leaving them to only provide takeout and delivery service. The shutdown is in effect for 30 days.
A number of restaurants up and down the Roaring Fork Valley are trying to grind it out with limited service, but the profit margins are much tighter on food than alcohol, which restaurants can’t serve now.
Other eatery owners, such as Wendy Harris, were closing shop indefinitely.
“We’re shutting down everything, we’re powering down everything,” said Harris, who owns New Belgium Ranger Station in the Snowmass Village Mall. “I know we’re supposed to stay put, and there may be people out there who need food or resources, but we’re just going to shut down a month early” before offseason takes hold in mid-April.
Harris said she told her employees to “be responsible, go home, go sit out your couch, go skiing, just shut it down and take advantage of this time to be creative. Everything is changing daily and it’s so hard to chase the ball. I’m not different than the government — everybody is trying to think through it and just stop and process it.”
With the cash spigot turned off for service workers who depend on tips to pay their bills, they have been left scrambling for help and answers to get through the standstill.
“Most restaurant employees live paycheck to paycheck, and they can go upside down in a hurry,” said Debbie Braun, executive director of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association. “And most restaurants are paycheck to paycheck. They are a tough business to work in and their margins are slim, especially in the various seasons.
ACRA has set up a coronavirus resource page for businesses and employees at https://www.aspenchamber.org/COVID-19.
Included is a questionnaire asking employers how much revenue they expect to lose, what resources local chambers could provide them, and whether they plan to close, among other questions.
“We have agreed that we are all in this together,” Braun said of the local business community, noting she understands landlords could be considering rent abatement of deferring lease payments.
Then there are the workers without any work.
Jimmy’s restaurant, which is doing take-out and delivery during the evening hours, is also offering 25% discounts on all meals, and “for anyone who doesn’t need this discount, we will take the 25% and put it into a pool to support our employees through this disaster. We have committed to financially supporting the 10 families on our kitchen staff as best we can, and we are hoping for community support to accomplish this,” said Jessica Lischka, general manager and partner of the Hopkins Avenue restaurant.
The state labor department said 10,000 people filed for unemployment benefits Wednesday, after the system had to be taken down for maintenance after a rash of applications Monday and Tuesday, The Denver Post reported.
“I know that the unemployment insurance system is experiencing a high load of claims,” Polis said in a media briefing Wednesday morning. “That website has been intermediate. People have gotten through; they have registered, but if you’re experiencing trouble, I would encourage you to try it early in the morning or late at night when the load is lower.”
To file a claim, go to https://www.colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/file-claim.
Restaurant operators also have noticed that the fine print in their insurance policies doesn’t bode well.
Companies with commercial property insurance plans can see their business-interruption policies triggered so that “it should cover lost profits and the company’s expenses incurred during the slowdown (extra expense),” noted attorney Arthur S. Garrett III in a piece The National Law Review published online Wednesday.
Garrett, however, cautioned the policy can only be triggered “if there is actual damage to the company’s covered property (so-called ‘direct physical loss’). A person infected by COVID-19 inside of the company’s property could be enough to trigger the policy. Many exclusions exist on the property policy and one to look out for is the mold/bacteria/virus exclusion, for obvious reasons.”
It’s that exclusion that has upset Mobilian and other restaurant owners such as Steve Humble of Free Range Kitchen and Wine Bar in Basalt.
In their policies, they noted the exclusion applies to “mold, fungus, bacteria, virus” that “has a function in, or is used by you in your business, operations, premises, site or location.”
“They’re denying us on a technicality,” Humble said.
Mobilian said his insurance company notified him last week the virus clause in his policy means his company is ineligible to collect lost earnings from the shutdown.
Humble’s restaurant is open for takeout, but “the bottom line is we don’t know if there is enough demand for that or if that is going to be sustainable. Are people going to tighten their belt?” he said.
Humble said he expects they will, but his insurance policy is useless in this instance, he said, noting he laid off most of his staff of 30 employees, with just limited kitchen staff on the payroll for the time being.
On Tuesday, Polis requested low-interest emergency loans of up to $2 million from the U.S. Small Business Administration for 15 counties in Colorado. Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin counties were not among them, but state officials said the reason for the counties identified were “solely because they touch all 64 counties in the state — a procedural requirement of the SBA process to illustrate contiguous county impact. State officials worked with county representatives to quickly secure the required examples of immediate harm that allowed the Governor to advance the entirety of the state for SBA approval. The Governor’s letter enabled a process that will benefit all 64 Colorado counties.”