Cresting COVID cases causes concerns

City mulls economic impact if city services, businesses shuttered again

Scott Taylor
staylor@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 7/15/20

With COVID-19 cases rising around Colorado and the country, the city is easing back on efforts to back to normal. “The city was prepared, in the coming week, to open more facilities and open more …

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Cresting COVID cases causes concerns

City mulls economic impact if city services, businesses shuttered again

Posted

With COVID-19 cases rising around Colorado and the country, the city is easing back on efforts to back to normal.

“The city was prepared, in the coming week, to open more facilities and open more activities,” Westminster Chief Financial Officer Larry Dorr said. “What we’ve been doing is slowly opening that valve, and now we’ve stopped opening it. We haven’t closed it but we’ve kind of paused for a while.”

City Councilors heard reports June 6 from several city officials concerning COVID-19 and it’s spread as well as the impact on the city’s finances. A day later, the city announced that services like canoe and paddle craft access to Standley Lake and indoor recreation facilities, would be delayed due to the disease uptick.

Other city services, like libraries and golf courses reopened in mid-June.

“But what has happened in the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen an uptick in cases in both Adams and Jefferson county,” Dorr said. “Plus, we are seeing increasing cases around the country.”

Statistics from Tri-County Health — which covers Adams County — and Jefferson County Health show positive tests increasing since mid-June. Westminster currently has 445 positive cases as of July 10, according to Tri-County Health.

“We believe that pausing is appropriate and we will not reopen Standley Lake,” Deputy City Manager Barb Opie told City Councilors. “We will delay reopening to a future date, to be determined. We will continue to prepare for reopening so we were ready to move as soon as conditions permit.”

Cracking the valve

City forecasts from March predicted the local economy would begin to rebound in June as restrictions lifted and stores, bars and restaurants re-opened, what Dorr referred to as the economic “cracking of the valve.”

“We did really well, through the end of June, and we’ve seen a lot of activity,” he said. “Just two weeks ago we were hearing about movie theaters that were going to start reopening, we had heard good things from hospitality and hotels about reopening.”

Plenty of outdoor city services began to reopen in June. The city reopened playgrounds and picnic areas as well as public golf courses, skate parks and pickleball courts.

“We’ve reopened municipal court, which does generate revenue, by the way,” Dorr said.

The next phase called for the valve city services to crack open a bit wider in July. That won’t happen now, and Dorr said the city is watching local sales to see what’s going to happen.

“We have been watching how this has affected other states and their economy,” Dorr said. “We’ve seen them delay allowing people to eat indoors at restaurants or they’ve been requiring them to close again. So we’ll be watching our state government related to those kinds of economic activities. Closing those would significantly recast what we have been expecting to happen.”

There have been economic bright spots, Dorr said. Grocers and liquor stores did well early in the COVID-19 business closures and stay-at-home orders. Once those orders began lifting, peoples’ buying patterns showed them wanting to get away, but stay socially distanced.

“We didn’t expect sales of RVs and sales of sporting equipment would increase and be as strong as they’ve been,” Dorr said. “People have been buying bicycles and hiking and camping gear and all manner of outdoors stuff, and that’s been slightly more favorable.”

Westminster implemented a hiring freeze on all but essential personnel — police and fire staff — but has not had to furlough or lay off any city employees.

“We can continue mowing the lawns and running the signal lights and responding to 911 calls,” he said. “We are maintaining all of our services without furloughs and we needed to make sure we have enough cash on hand to make payroll.”

That meant tapping into the city’s reserves, of about $32 million. So far, Westminster has used about $6 million from the reserves.

“We anticipated a significant return to economic activity in July, and it appears now that is less and less likely each day,” Door said.

Now, Dorr said the city needs to watch carefully in case COVID’s spread worsens and state government and local necessity force the valve to close.

“We did not anticipate that bars would be re-closed by the governor, and that was a regression in terms of economic activity,” Dorr said. “That’s something we need to contemplate.”

Regressing could also force the city to close it’s the few revenue generating activities that are open, like the public golf courses. That would add to the city’s economic woes, he said.

“We are open now with social distancing in place and all sorts of other workarounds, but are already forecast a seven-figure drop in golf activities and revenues for 2020 and that’s provided there is not a worsening of caseloads and we see the courses closed.”

Councilors had different reactions. Councilor Anita Seitz warned against letting a growing outbreak ruin what has recovered so far.

“Obviously, we don’t want to spread doom and gloom, but we want to make sure we have a healthy business community,” Seitz said. “And I very nervous about the ability of our local businesses to weather a massive regression. So we want to watch all of this carefully to do what we can to prevent transmission while we support local businesses that are open.”

Councilor David DeMott warned against being too cautious.

“I’ve heard from the business community that they want us to advocate for them, not just to stopping the spread but not being so cautious we are not allowing people to survive this,” DeMott said.

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