It's not hyperbolic to say that the coronavirus pandemic has upended every aspect of Colorado life.
Interstate traffic jams at rush hour have been replaced by Zoom meetings and face masks. Health care workers worry about face masks and ventilators while legislators set aside deliberations on price caps and cost-shifting for hospitals, while the engines of the state economy sit idle with no end in sight.
"We will find our way out of this darkness, and into the light of a brilliant new day," Gov. Jared Polis promised in an address carried statewide on April 7.
While officials work out the health emergency, they're taking stock of what's ahead and what's likely to never be the same after a global pandemic that will deliver economic aftershocks for months, if not years or decades.
The staff at Colorado Politics talked to officials, lawmakers, businesspeople and other industry thought leaders to find out an answer to a simple question: What's next?
For some it was looking at the hurdles; for others, it meant taking stock of what's been lost. Others are still in the middle of the storm, trying to determine how they'll know when it's over. It's by no means a complete list; but, just like the first small step, it's a start.
The Colorado economy: The boom times sputter, but for how long?
Colorado officials and experts can’t say yet when the new beginning begins, but the economic pain for Colorado is just setting in, as the first monthly payments come due after weeks of an American workforce on the couch.
Once the state is past the physical casualties, an economic crisis looms, even with the help of federal grants, loan forgiveness and other ways the government can spend money to jump-start the recovery. Unemployment sailed past 15 million Americans early in April with millions more waiting to find out if they'll have a job to go back to.
“Many businesses in Colorado have reached the point of having to make difficult decisions in order to continue operating,” Chuck Berry, the president of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, said.
“Some companies have had to lay off employees or cut hours and pay, restructure their finances, or reduce unnecessary spending significantly to preserve cash. Many have indicated that they plan to seek out federal (Small Business Administration) loans or other assistance to get through this crisis.”
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet held a conference call with business leaders from the Pikes Peak region on April 3.
"Our hospitals are just getting hammered," he said.
Eventually those bills will come due. The national debt is expected to reach $29 trillion in the next two years, up from $19.9 trillion when President Trump took office with a pledge to eliminate it.
Bennet talked about the trillions of dollars in relief and recovery money the federal government is providing to help. Looking ahead at a cratering economy, meaning government money is going out in a surge at a time revenue will be coming in at a trickle.
The latest federal stimulus package of nearly $2.3 trillion represents about 10% of the value of the country’s gross domestic product, and a late-March analysis by Moody's Investment Service said it could reach 20% relative to the size of the shrinking economy.
For a nation alleged by some politicians to be crushed under debt long before the pandemic, the new spending will weigh heavily on what state and federal governments can spend in the future unless they continue to dig deeper into debt, logic dictates.
Coloradans are expected to get $4.85 billion in direct payments, plus a $600 weekly unemployment benefit for those out of work, which the Colorado Fiscal Institute estimates would put between $150.6 million and $322.7 million into the state’s economy each month.
Chris Brown, the research leader at the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, called the economic freefall and uncertain future “virtually unprecedented.”
No one will have a good read on the depth of the damage, until unemployment bottoms out. “We expect the numbers to continue to climb,” he said in a conference call with members of the business research institute.
CoBank hosted a webinar on April 1 about the impact of the pandemic on agriculture.
“There’s an awful lot of uncertainty,” said Dan Kowalski, vice president of CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange.
Projections show total unemployment between 4% and 8%, which could still be under-reported because many people will drop out of the labor market rather than look.
A survey released March 31 by the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder said business confidence is at its lowest level in the 17 years since the school started tracking those numbers. The second quarter of 2020 showed a confidence level of 28.8, with at least a 50 required to show positive business expectations. Confidence for the national economy came in at 21.8.
The greatest job losses will be in retail, accommodations, food service and arts and entertainment, losing a projected 183,000 jobs in those four sectors alone, the Common Sense Policy Roundtable projected. Other sectors combined add up to an estimated 115,000 job losses this year, Brown said.
Brown fielded a question about whether deregulation was the answer to rev up the economy.
“I think it’s critical that we remove barriers to innovation,” he told the conference call, noting that some regulations and requirements were being relaxed during the emergency.
“It will be interesting to see if any of those remain,” Brown said.
Feeding America: Ag and suppliers on the front lines
Paul Schlagel is watching the coronavirus and the economy the way he normally watches the weather this spring.
His family has grown sugar beets for more than a century and continues to farm 1,500 irrigated acres in western Weld and eastern Boulder counties.
“The longer this goes on, the worse it’s going to be,” he said of the impact on markets that buy his products, including corn and grains for beer.
“The value of some of our crops doesn’t look good,” he said.
Farm and transport leaders said they are seeing a surge in demand for food in the panic buying, but worry it's an economic sugar high, as they struggle to find capital, workers and certainty.
"We're going to hold off on some equipment purchases until we see how this thing is going to go," Schlagel said.
Long-term, the fate of farmers and truckers, like those in other sectors, is tied to consumer spending and market conditions.
One year is a short-term impact, Schlagel said. “We plan for that,” he said. But anything longer paints a picture of concern and uncertainty for Colorado agriculture, one of the load-bearing pillars of the Colorado economy and one that state leaders pointed to for lifting Colorado out of the Great Recession a decade ago.
Agriculture, energy and tourism make up Colorado's economic golden goose.
It’s feast or famine for truckers right now, keeping open the supply lines that feed a nervous public who panic buy, stalk deliveries and stockpile.
“They’re on the front lines, to say the least,” said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association.
But on the other end, companies that support the oil fields and restaurant industry are struggling, he said.
“It’s a market that’s upside down,” Fulton said.
Tom Lee’s father and mother started Empire Warehouse, a regional trucking depot in Denver in 1967. The company delivers food, candy, school and medical supplies across the West. Lee can only wait to find out how his business is affected, recalling how it never grew back to the size it was before the historic recession a decade ago. Right now, the company isn’t planning on cutting back on its 14 trucks based in Denver and four in Salt Lake City, but he noted that he has no idea what the economic future holds.
“I wish I had a crystal ball on that,” Lee said. “Nobody knows how long this is going to last, and that’s the hard part about it.”
Unions he belongs to are helping move staff from warehouses that are relatively idle — such as restaurant suppliers — to those that can’t keep up.
Ag is in the same boat on employment, as it counts on a supply of workers who come into the United States about this time every spring to plant crops. About 250,000 people come to the U.S. through the H2A temporary ag worker visa program, mostly from Mexico. But on March 16, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico announced it was suspending the program for all but emergency visas, due to concerns over the health of embassy workers and visitors.
The one exemption: employers and employees who participated in the program in 2019 don’t have to go to the embassy for in-person appointments and can continue to work.
The other concern, as it is for grocery stores, hospitals and any other essential business: keeping workers healthy, especially when many live in close quarters.
— Joey Bunch
State budget and the economy
Colorado lawmakers will have a big task ahead of them when they return, which isn’t likely before the first of May, and that’s dealing with the state budget.
The March revenue forecast threw ice-cold water on what had been years of sustained economic growth. Legislative Council economists estimated that state revenues would take an $800 million hit, based on the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lawmakers will see revised numbers by May 12, then reconvene the legislative session, adjourned since March 14, on May 18. The goal is to get a budget to the governor's desk by May 30, to prepare state agencies for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Estimates of possible budget cuts now range in the $2 billion to $3 billion range, according to Speaker of the House KC Becker of Boulder.
The federal CARES Act could put about $1.7 billion back into state coffers, Becker said April 2. Whether that can be used to back-fill the budget cuts is unknown. The other possibility is that the federal money will cover items in the budget that could allow lawmakers to move money around to cover gaps.
Gov. Jared Polis has not talked publicly about possible budget cuts or some of the measures he may be considering to cover shortfalls, such as furloughing state workers or enacting a hiring freeze. While he hasn’t ordered a freeze, a March 30 memo from the Office of State Planning and Budgeting encourages departments not to fill vacant or new positions at this time.
But at the same time, departments are looking for ways to conserve fiscal resources in the face of revenue declines, said Conor Cahill, the governor's spokesman.
An Office of State Planning and Budgeting memo sets a target for most state agencies on budget cuts, so long as the cuts don’t impact critical services. They range from $0 for the departments of Agriculture, Labor and Employment and Transportation, to $20 million for the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, which handles Medicaid.
“We’re good for now,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat who also sits on the Joint Budget Committee. Lawmakers and the governor have access to all kinds of emergency funds, including the state’s nearly $1 billion in reserves, and could even tap into controlled maintenance money if necessary. The CARES Act also gives lawmakers some breathing room, she explained.
What makes lawmakers, including budget writers, nervous, is the downturn in future revenues tied to economic activity. “We don’t have a complete picture of the economic impacts of this health crisis,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and vice-chair of the Joint Budget Committee.
JBC members are hopeful that the damage to the economy will become a little more clear with economic indicators and other data that will start showing up in the first two weeks of April. Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat who also sits on the JBC, said they look at 15 different indicators, including real estate activity, interest rates and the price of oil. Notably, West Texas Crude was selling below $26 a barrel on April 8 down from $58 last September.
Oil and gas taxes are a key source of revenue for state and local governments, as well as employing tens of thousands of Coloradans.
Moreno told Colorado Politics the JBC has been encouraged to take their time and not rush into any decisions with the situation so much in flux. “It’s very difficult to build a budget that is largely inaccurate and then have to make mid-year cuts,” Moreno explained.
The JBC originally had planned to start working again on the budget on April 7, and JBC staff have been working on it during the recess, but that timeline has now been pushed back. “I suspect we’ll be meeting every week this summer,” Moreno said.
— Marianne Goodland
Denver's struggles: ‘Free falling into a hole’
The first week of April marked a month since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Denver. Since then, the impacts of the virus have crept into every corner of city government, requiring local leaders — some in their first year on the job — to navigate uncharted territory.
The city’s plastic and paper bag fee, for example, was scheduled to take effect this summer, but it's pushed back until January, at least partly because they were concerns that bags brought from home wouldn't be as sanitary as single-use bags.
“It is not a good time to be working on this now," Councilwoman Kendra Black, who led the ordinance, told Colorado Politics in an email.
Council President Jolon Clark predicted more delays.
“We’re kind of free falling into a hole, and until we hit the bottom and we know how deep that hole is, it’s hard to tell what kind of ladder we’re going to need to get out,” he said.
One thing seems clear.
“The impact to our overall revenues will be significant,” Department of Finance spokesperson Julie Smith wrote in an email.
In early March, the city implemented ways to save money, including curbing non-essential travel, tightening spending and asking departments to identify 1% of budget savings for emergency response. By mid-March, the city upped the ask to the departments to 3%.
The city also suspended hiring, excluding uniformed and “essential/high priority” positions, and created a special revenue fund to move $10 million in contingency funds for supplies and equipment related to the outbreak. If needed, Smith said, the city could also ask for additional savings from the agencies or look to tap into additional contingency.
“I know this hasn’t been easy for many," Hancock said in a statement, "but given the current data and advice from experts about the spread of COVID-19 in our community and across the country, these are the actions that are going to get us on the other side of this curve and protect the health of as many people as possible.”
Denver's stay-at-home order is in effect until April 30, four days longer than the statewide order set by the governor.
"The state stay-at-home order ending earlier does not prevent Denver from having an order that is longer in duration," Eric Escudero from Denver's Joint Information Center said. "Denver’s order is lawful for all people in Denver."
— Alayna Alvarez
Health care: New ways of healing
Polis took office promising to lower the cost of health care, and this year that meant taking on the prices charged by hospitals and insurance companies. Lawmakers were expected to be hammering out and passing a public option health care plan with price controls and below-market premiums. Competition and regulation would soothe a savage market for consumers.
The promise looks to be destined for the shelf in the wake of the pandemic, rather than pitching a battle with hospitals and insurers on the prices they charge.
“A lot of bills will have to wait until next year,” Becker told reporters. “What those are yet, we haven't fully decided. We'll have a conversation with the governor's office about that, but he's really very busy right now in the middle of managing this whole thing and prioritizing, instead of his legislative priorities.
“We’ll know more in the next month, but we don’t have all the answers right now.”
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail, is carrying the bill. She said the illness, deaths and anxiety have hit unusually hard in smaller communities, which are also reeling from the economic impact.
We find ourselves in a thing like this, where the goal is to survive the next day and adhere to the set of rules that are ever-evolving.”
The crisis, however, could go down as a turning point for telemedicine, the long-expected savior for places such as rural Colorado for physical and mental health, Colorado Politics reported last summer.
Online therapy is being tested and video conferencing grows more popular and simple.
“We’re entering this moment where face-to-face therapy might not ever be the same,” Boulder County therapist and clinical psychologist Barry Erdman said in a March 29 webinar . “We may go for many months now relying on this technology to help in any way we can.”
Hotlines, such as the state’s Mental Health Partners, are proving a good way to get people help in a crisis, he said.
“There are plenty of people who just need someone to talk to and are feeling disconnected,” Erdman said.
The school-based clinic model has become a community model, as well, in the crisis. That could prove a model that conservatives would call socialized medicine in normal circumstances.
— Joey Bunch
All-mail balloting gives Colorado a leg up
Even as social distancing requirements and other precautions surrounding the coronavirus outbreak have prompted officials to postpone elections in state after state, officials in Colorado say the state's tried-and-true method of conducting elections positions residents to vote in upcoming elections pretty much the way they have been, with only a few extra measures necessary to protect the small number of voter who cast ballots at vote centers.
Colorado has been holding all-mail elections since 2013 and finished its own presidential primary on March 3, only days before the growing pandemic began to turn daily life upside down.
In Colorado’s Super Tuesday primary, 97% of the more than 1.7 million voters returned their ballots by mail or deposited them in a growing number of ballot drop-boxes in every county, state election officials reported — all without having to deal with the lines, crowds and shared equipment involved in traditional, in-person voting
“Without realizing it, Coloradans have been practicing social distancing in elections long before the term was even coined,” Secretary of State Jena Griswold said in an April 3 Morning Consult op-ed pitching Colorado’s preferred voting method to a national audience.
Since adopting universally available mail ballots in 2013, she pointed out, “we have perfected our election model to one that consistently leads the nation in voter registration and turnout. Moreover, mail ballots are a secure voting method. In a time when foreign countries try to undermine our democracy, having a paper trail and a ballot secure from hacking is essential.”
Griswold said that since the COVID-19 spread has left her counterparts “faced with balancing public safety against ingrained American liberties such as the right to vote,” governments around the country have been contacting her office's experts to help ramp up mail elections.
“When more states increase access to voting, it’s good for our democracy,” she said. “Under present circumstances, this is even more true.”
With the duration of protective measures unknown, Griswold and other mail-ballot advocates have been urging states nationwide to take a cue from Colorado, Washington and Oregon, the only states that conduct elections almost entirely by mail.
Skeptics, however, caution that it’s a complicated and expensive task that took those three states years to put in place and shouldn’t be embarked upon lightly.
As for Colorado’s fast-approaching primary — for all federal, state and county offices other than president — a spokesman for Griswold said the pandemic isn’t expected to affect things.
“No anticipated changes to the primary at this point,” Steve Hurlbert said in an email. “Still full speed ahead for June 30!”
In the meantime, deadlines are looming. The Secretary of State’s Office has until May 7 to provide a list of all the candidates who make the ballot to county clerks — moved back about a week by an executive order signed by Gov. Jared Polis to allow the Democratic and Republican parties more flexibility with their nominating assemblies.
Clerks will then have to get ballots printed and put them in the mail to military and overseas voters by May 16. Ballots go out to state residents starting on June 8, and voting centers open by June 22.
Voters might notice a few changes at voting centers, where clerks will almost certainly be following a set of guidelines issued by Polis ahead of April 7 municipal and district elections, which routinely see significantly smaller turnout than statewide primary and general elections.
Polis noted that Colorado’s March 26 stay-at-home order specifically excludes elections as “Critical Government Functions."
“We want to ensure that Coloradans across our state are able to participate in their local elections and that this pandemic does not impact our democratic process,” he said in a statement. “It’s critical that Coloradans stay home during this time to the extent they can, but it’s also critical that they exercise their right to vote in all elections, whether it’s for your fire district, electric coop, or town.”
Polis advised staying current on CDC recommendations for handling mail and other aspects of conducting elections.
“It is vital to our democracy to ensure that all are able to participate without fear of infection,” he said.
— Ernest Luning
Transportation: Polis’ plans on a bumpy road
Before the coronavirus, state highway director Shoshanna Lew was building a castle on the sand, a 10-year plan that relied on an extra $500 million a year above the historic baseline for the department.
As the economy craters, the reality might change, but not the dream, she said.
“I don’t think dreams become nightmares that easily,” she said to the looming budget reality. “What we’re seeing right now is that you have to plan for the best and worst of times.”
The 10-year plan she released just last month is a solid, well-reasoned pipeline of projects, even if they have to wait on money.
“It’s something you need if you’re in a growth situation, and it’s something you need if you have to make hard choices,” Lew said. “All the work we’ve done to prioritize and articulate the needs of the state’s infrastructure is a different kind of conversation if the economy is contracting rather than growing but it’s still an exercise you need.”
Highway funding depends on gas takes and “it’s not rocket science” that people aren’t driving much these days, however, Lew said. Who can guess when that changes, she added.
As more people work at home and explore the convenience of teleconferencing, there could be a changing dynamic on traffic, with fewer commuters post-pandemic. Such a cultural shift, however, is a dynamic hard to bank on at this point, Lew and transportation experts said.
Meanwhile, federal relief packages that already have passed so far will bring in billions of dollars for state and local governments, which could help back-fill transportation budgets, Lew said.
The fourth phase of federal recovery could focus on infrastructure, and Trump has thrown out a $2 trillion wish.
“I don’t think anyone knows precisely right now what a timeline for a package like that would be,” Lew said. “There’s certainly chatter about it in Washington and elsewhere.”
Lawmakers in Denver, historically, have had a hard time agreeing to invest in roads in recent years, even during the economic good times, and voters have rejected ballot measures to invest more tax dollars into transportation three times in two years.
Legislators in the economic glory days of 2018 put in motion a ballot measure this November to ask voters to approve borrowing more than $1.8 billion for transportation with a 20-year payback. Timing is everything. The measure, funded from the then-existing state budget, was originally planned for the 2019 ballot but moved to 2020 by the legislature last year, a period in which the economic outlook swung from rosy to terrifying.
Transportation is a solid long-term investment that delivers a return on investment, according to the state's chambers of commerce, who sent a letter to the Joint Budget Committee this month asking them to seize the opportunity to invest recovery dollars in infrastructure.
“Infrastructure investment is a sure economic stimulus bet and provides displaced workers with opportunity for long term personal recovery,” Sandra Hagen Solin, who leads the business coalition Fix Colorado Roads. “As difficult as it may be, Colorado must be ready with dollars to match anticipated federal funds making general fund investment a necessary high priority budget item upon the legislature’s return.”
— Joey Bunch
Schools: Playing catch-up through 2021
On a single Friday, 16 Front Range school districts announced the elimination of “in-person learning” through the end of the school year. The April 3 shutdown surprised no one, as earlier that week, Polis all but officially ended in-person classroom learning for the entire state for the semester.
“All school districts should prepare for traditional in-classroom instruction to not return this school year,” he said. “I like to be an optimist, so it is possible … [but] very unlikely."
It’s been a piecemeal process for schools.
Two weeks earlier, Polis ordered a four-week closure of all statewide public and private schools to limit the spread of coronavirus through close contact. Remote learning was launched in Colorado’s 178 school districts to last until April 17.
“It’s confusing and challenging,” said Aron Jones, principal of Lamar’s Parkview Elementary. “Kids will suffer.”
Schools in Prowers County, and many other rural districts, are still holding to the April 17 date, hoping to open once again for in-person learning on the following Monday.
Lamar has become a ghost town. Jones said he rarely sees kids on the street when he and his wife drive through town. There is police tape surrounding the playground in the park near his school.
“State testing, which would have started April 16 for accountability, has been canceled. It brings up a lot of questions about teacher evaluations for next year, which have been put on hold as well,” he said.
The Colorado Education Association said that 50% of teachers’ evaluations are tied to test scores.
Jones is also unclear whether Parkview will get the dollars to fund next year’s successful bullying prevention program, which is funded by money from marijuana sales. “That grant is on hold because the requirements have been canceled.”
Rural Prowers County is one of a handful of areas in Colorado with zero cases of COVID-19, as of April 8. Jones said he believes that cases there have gone undiagnosed.
For Denver’s public schools, the challenges for testing and acclimating students into the classroom for the next school year are similar to those in Lamar, but the urgency to get students to learn from home is very different.
“In rural areas, getting broadband to houses is hard. We don’t have that problem in the city,” Denver Public Schools Superintendent Susana Cordova said. “We have a challenge in the large number of families that can’t afford internet in their homes.”
Cordova said before the coronavirus shuttered Denver’s schoolrooms, DPS had supplied Chromebooks to two-thirds of its low-income children, and Xfinity reduced internet fees to help out as well.
But Cordova is concerned about what next year’s fall semester.
“We have to think thoughtfully about how do we catch kids up after the impact of not only a spring, but a summer slide. How do we think about accelerating programs for kids.”
Colorado Education Association President Amie Baca-Oehlert is worried about the obvious challenges to academics. As a former school counselor, she’s also worried about the effect the bottomed-out school year will have on the mental health of Colorado’s students. For instance, students will be returning to class in August without having said goodbye to their teachers and friends.
“What is really happening is kids are disconnecting from their lifeline,” she said, mentioning the canceled graduations, proms and spring musicals.
Jennifer Milstead, who teaches social studies at Littleton’s Euclid Middle School, said teachers “work in schools because we like to be around kids and other teachers. And for a lot of kids, school is a safe place. That goes for those of us who work there too!”
— Carol McKinley
Restaurants and retail: Greater focus at home
It took only 25 days in March for the retail and restaurant industries to implode. On March 1, the organizers of an 11,000-person convention in Denver abruptly canceled it before there had been a single positive case of COVID-19. Just over three weeks and 61,000 unemployment claims later, the governor ordered Coloradans to stay home until the end of April.
"Restaurants are still very much in the fight-for-survival phase,” said Sonia Riggs, the CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “We know that there will be fewer restaurants in our communities, and we know that those that do hang on will be fragile, as it'll take everything they've got to scrape by to the other side of this.”
Dine-in service halted on March 17, as some shifted to take-out and delivery orders. Others laid off their workforce. The retail industry faced a similar fate, and Chris Howes believes that those alternatives will last beyond the end of shelter-at-home.
“The new normal will definitely be more service to your front door, and that might mean less communication with a sales professional in the stores,” said Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council. “And there’s some pros, but some cons as well.”
The National Federation of Independent Business commissioned a survey on March 30 of more than 1,100 small businesses. Half of the respondents indicated that they could sustain operations for no longer than two months under current conditions. Coming out of the pandemic, others may look to the retail sector for clues to normalcy.
“Will we see the virus on the decline in May? Will we see an ease in social distancing at that point? Will we see some freedom for restaurants to open back up again?” wondered Brian Lewandowski of CU’s Business Research Division. “All of these things will really weigh or impact business confidence.”
Riggs said that restaurants were already operating on small margins to begin with, but she hoped that when the crisis fades, some of the accommodations — like allowing delivery and take-out of alcohol — will remain in place. Howes noted that consumer behavior would likely reflect a more home-based existence.
“Certainly people will want to get out and socialize,” he said, “but I think people become more and more accustomed to having anything delivered. Some of the older folks, it’s kind of a new thing for them. My parents in Florida, I don’t think they’ve ever had anything delivered. They’ve always gone to the store.”
Other innovations are cropping up: dedicated parking spaces free from ticketing outside of restaurants for delivery drivers. “Baker bonds,” gift cards that accrue 10% interest by the end of the year. Restaurants selling cookbooks, spice mixes and aprons for those stuck at home.
Then there is old-fashioned kindness.
“Even amid this crisis, we see restaurants continue to serve as community pillars. They're making meals for health care workers, and offering pay-what-you-can and free meals for people in need,” said Riggs. "We expect that whatever happens, that won't change. Restaurants will continue to be an essential part of the community fabric.”
— Michael Karlik