Businesses in Durango took tentative steps Friday to emerge from government-ordered restrictions and shutdowns put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A week after most other rural economies began to allow in-person store visits and offices began restaffing to half-capacity, Durango and the rest of La Plata County took the same small step toward commercial normalcy.
Requirements remain in place for social distancing, mask use, enhanced cleaning, employee health tracking and reducing the number of people in retail businesses.
Businesses were required to complete a self-certification checklist to ensure they met San Juan Basin Public Health standards for reopening.
“It’s going to be a soft opening. We’re going to do this real slowly,” said Misty Tucson, owner of Urban Grace Studio, 1040 Main Ave. “I’m not putting pressure on myself and the crew. We’re going to be appointment-based only, we’re giving people space and we’re going to take care of ourselves.”
On Friday, the salon scheduled half the clients it would have seen before COVID-19.
The idea is to cut capacity in half to allow for an extra 15 to 30 minutes between clients to clean stations. The salon also has spaced chairs 6 feet apart and moved some stations to the back of the shop to allow for greater social distance.
The salon, which has been shut down for more than seven weeks, used downtime for cleanings and other improvements. On Wednesday, Tucson and her mother finished a deep clean.
“We have the tools we need, and we have the information we need, and I’m comfortable we’re going to be OK. We want to be too cautious rather than too lax and miss things. We can always ease up later if we’re too restrictive,” she said.
Stacee Santi, owner of Vet2Pet, also is following the slow-is-better policy before her office returns to normal.
The company, which makes mobile apps for veterinarians, has 23 employees, but most work remotely all over the world. The Durango headquarters in Three Springs has five employees in the office. They, too, worked remotely during the COVID-19 stay-at-home order issued at the end of March.
“Honestly, it was kind of hard,” Santi said. “You miss the camaraderie of being part of a bigger vision you get when you go to an office. You lose your cues that say now it’s time to work at the beginning of the day and the cues at the end of the day that now it’s time to stop working and go home and enjoy time with your family.”
Santi was the only employee in the office Friday, and three employees will divide time between telecommuting and returning to the office for work.
Two employees have children, and with the cancellation of in-class school sessions and summer camps, they will remain as telecommuters.
“We’re going to stress safety. We want a safe workplace, and then we want to work with all the employees individually to create the environment where they feel safe to work,” she said.
Brian Devine, environmental health director with San Juan Basin Public Health, said Safer La Plata practices will be in effect through May 26.
Devine emphasized that all businesses, essential and nonessential, need to self-certify according to SJBPH standards. Essential businesses have until Friday to complete the self-certification checklist.
“Our local businesses have taken their infection prevention duties really seriously. A ton of thought and detail is in the self-certification forms we’ve received so far,” Devine said.
A date to allow restaurants to reopen dining rooms has not yet been set by the state, he said.
In addition, recreation businesses and outfitters have not been allowed to reopen under the Safer at Home policies. Devine said SJBPH expects to issue further guidance about when they can reopen, but he doesn’t know when it will come.
Carly Van Hof Thomson with Zia Taqueria said employees are examining configurations that would allow restaurant dining at 30% to 50% of capacity. Ideas include seating a maximum of four people at every other table and using parking lots for outdoor patios.
“What we’d really like is information about what will be required to reopen,” she said.
Rod Barker, owner of the Strater Hotel, is working on a three-phased plan to restart dining operations. He is unsure about the conditions the Strater will face or when he may seat diners again.
He’d like to reopen the Diamond Belle Saloon on May 25, and The Office Spiritorium and The Mahogany Grille in August and September.
Like Zia Taqueria, Barker is experimenting with seating options to comply with social distancing, but perhaps his biggest hurdle is persuading employees to go off unemployment.
Unemployment checks have been enhanced to provide an additional $600 a week for up to 39 weeks for unemployed workers under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
“Quite frankly, we’re finding it’s a challenge to find workers. Some of them don’t want to come off unemployment. These enhanced benefits go on for quite a long time,” he said.
In April, the Strater had only 3% occupancy, and Barker said he’s concerned that normal spending patterns might not return for longer than anyone anticipated.
A recipient of funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, Barker worries that commerce will be so slow he won’t be able to hire enough workers within the eight weeks the government requires in order to forgive his loan – essentially turning it into a grant.
“We’re grateful for the program, but ideally for it to work for us, we would need it to extend beyond June 10, when for us we’re supposed to be back at full staff,” he said.
Dave Moler, owner of Durango Rivertrippers and Adventure Tours, said information about when recreational businesses, outfitters and rafting companies can open remains murky, frustrating his planning.
“It’s about as clear as mud,” he said when asked about any COVID-19 restrictions on rafting companies.
Moler is working through the SJBPH self-certification checklist for safety, but needs information about specifics, such as rafting tours.
Currently, he hopes to begin offering commercial rafting tours between May 11 and May 22.
He’s working with the governor’s office, SJBPH and Colorado River Outfitters Association to gain clarity about holding rafting trips, but he said information is hard to find.
It’s likely rafters will sell river tours by the boatload, not by individual rafters, because rafts’ weight and cargo must be balanced for a safe trip.
Moler said the idea is to sell a tour to a family or to a group of friends who know one another and are assured they are safe making contact with all the other rafters on the boat.
“We’re not chomping at the bit to open as early as possible. We want to open once, and we want to open right,” he said.