Donna Ready compared living in Grand Lake to living on the set of a Hallmark movie.
“Overnight it becomes this hopping town,” the real estate agent and owner of Mountain Lake Properties said. She and other locals are “extras,” who make it possible for the “stars,” the visitors, “to come out and live their lives and special events.”
But this year, the storyline is a little different.
Like many businesses in Colorado, those in Grand Lake reopened after spending the spring shuttered in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. Although Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order expired the last week of April, travel to the mountains was not approved until a month later. Before that, Coloradans were encouraged to recreate within 10 miles of their homes.
While necessary for public health, it was a blow to the town’s economy, which thrives on summer tourism and outdoor recreation.
“It’s kind of make or break in some cases,” said DiAnn Butler, economic development coordinator for Grand County. “They have a winter economy, but it’s so significantly less.”
After worrying in March and April about what this summer would be like, Ready was surprised when the season began.
“As soon as Memorial Day came, the town just exploded like it does every year on Memorial Day,” Ready said. “It’s been like that ever since.”
Butler estimates that 30% of summer tourists usually fly in from other places in the U.S. and internationally. While those visitors aren’t coming this year, she suspects they’re being replaced with additional drive-in guests.
“We’ve kind of been encouraged by what the numbers are reflecting,” Butler said. “We are seeing quite a bit of traffic.”
She attributes it to the county’s plethora of outdoor activities, remote but drivable location and low incidence of positive COVID-19 cases. Midway through the summer season, the county had recorded 22 cases and one death that was pending investigation.
“People seem to want to be here more than ever,” Ready said.
Not business as usual
And yet “different” was a word used often by store and restaurant owners to describe the summer season so far. Music festivals and art fairs in the county will not happen. The Rocky Mountain Repertory Theatre canceled its summer productions. But there are other activities drawing in tourists.
“As soon as the governor announced that people were able to go to the mountains, Grand Lake was very busy,” David Lively said. Lively gives private tours in Rocky Mountain National Park and history talks all across Colorado.
“I welcome travelers, but I want them to be safe while they are here,” Lively said. “I want them to protect us, and I want us to protect them.”
Ready said she’s not worried about tourists bringing illness to the town. But now more than in the past, she and her employees chat with visitors out on the boardwalk rather than invite them into their office.
Jean-Claude Cavalera, chef and owner of Stillwater Grill, asks his guests to wear masks. “I’m not interested in getting the coronavirus,” he said.
In addition to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, shops and restaurants faced staffing issues.
At the end of May, Colorado permitted dine-in seating with restrictions for restaurants. But Cavalera kept Stillwater Grill closed for another two weeks.
“It’s very difficult to reopen,” he said. He lost most of his staff when restaurants were closed earlier in the year and is still short on help. “For some reason a lot of people are unemployed, and a lot of people didn’t come back.”
Although normally low, Grand County saw its unemployment rate skyrocket because of COVID-19. At 16.0% in May, only five of Colorado’s 64 counties had a higher rate. Yet restaurants around town have been looking for more workers.
“We’re trying to do the work of six or eight people with four of us,” said Jennie Schliep, who has owned Sloopy’s Grill with her husband Richard for nearly a decade. “We just haven’t been able to find anybody. We’ve advertised. Nobody’s applying.”
Last year she had six full-time employees and three part-timers. Now she’s operating with less than half of that staff. Cavalera said he’s working with half as many people, too.
“People that I know were telling me that they could make more on unemployment than going back to work,” Ready said.
In addition to regular unemployment benefits issued by the state, the federal government provided an emergency increase of $600 per week under the CARES Act. The assistance ended in late July, but that may have been too late for Grand Lake’s business owners who depend on summer traffic and needed a workforce to serve them.
“People in this town make as much in July as they do the four busy winter months,” Schliep said. “It’s a busy, busy time.”
In addition to domestic workers, Colorado’s hospitality and tourism industries also rely on seasonal workers from other countries. These individuals are part of the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program run by the U.S. Department of State.
“Dozens come into town every summer,” Ready said. “We realized in February that there was going to be these travel restrictions. … This is the first time in many, many years that we have not had the foreign students working in the restaurants and bars and the lodging facilities.”
Some businesses are coping with the lack of staff by reducing the number of hours they operate. Stillwater Grill, Dairy King and Sloopy’s Grill are closed at least one day a week more than last summer.
Bob Scott, owner of Bob Scott’s Native American Jewelry and Fine Gifts, started his 52nd season in Grand Lake a month later than he has in past years.
“It’s just not business as usual, and that’s an understatement,” Scott said.
A bump in the road
Yet business owners don’t expend much energy decrying their situation or playing the blame game.
“The town has a really good attitude about it,” Ready said. “The business owners have really stepped up and made their outdoor space much more beautiful than usual, and it makes it look fun and festive and alive.
Most restaurants have added outdoor seating, Ready said. It allows them to serve more customers and still observe social-distancing rules.
Although he’s down 50% compared to last year, Cavalera complemented the local government and the governor on their efforts to manage the pandemic. “We were getting information every day, every other day. Some states didn’t do anything.”
Scott, who operates only in the summer, said he will have a loss for the season because he was closed in May. But he pointed out that he was “just about neck and neck with any previous June.”
“I’ve had 51 perfectly idyllic summers, and I can’t carp that there’s been one that’s been a bump in the road,” he said between greeting customers.
Real estate sales are up for Ready, and she credits the shift to telecommuting during the state’s stay-at-home orders.
“A whole lot of people, myself included, have learned that they can do everything they need to from home on their computer,” Ready said. “I think a lot of our second home-owners and new prospective buyers are realizing that they can actually be up here a good part of the week, if not all the time, and still do all of their work from home here.”
Of her own business, Ready said it’s doing at least as well as in a typical summer. “I don’t know that I would say it’s better, but it’s certainly not worse. It’s at least as good.”
“We’re going to get through this,” Scott said. “Grand Lake was here during the silver boom and bust 140 years ago, and we’re just as tough as that.”
This story package is the result of student work from Social Documentary: Pandemic 2020. Writers, photographers and broadcast journalists in this course document social trends and events, with a focus on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Coloradans.
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