Opening move: Mesa County commissioners request local coordination

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Mesa County commissioners have asked for a waiver from statewide orders to allow for local coordination over efforts to ease restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The plan calls for a three-phase approach that would change if coronavirus hospitalizations increased.

Commissioner Rose Pugliese said a local effort makes more sense in part because there have been fewer hospitalizations and less demand for health care services in Mesa County than other areas of Colorado. “I think we’re in the best position to determine what’s best for Mesa County.”

Meanwhile, the effects of closures and stay-at-home orders on businesses and their employees have become more pronounced.

While 38 percent of business owners and managers responding to the latest survey conducted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce reported their gross receipts had declined by more than half, 40 percent said they’d been forced to furlough or lay off employees.

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County increased two points in March to 6.3 percent, the highest level in nearly four years.

Initial claims in the county for unemployment benefits jumped from 95 for the week ending March 14 to 463 for the week ending March 21 to 2,288 for the week ending March 28.

Many businesses have taken advantage of federal loan programs, including one program offering forgiveness in repaying money borrowed to cover payroll for two months.

The U.S. Small Business Administration announced that from its start on April 3, the Paycheck Protection Program has provided assistance to more than 1.6 million small businesses nationwide. The federal agency processed what by one estimate would amount to 14 years worth of loans in less than 14 days.

While the $350 billion allocated to a relief program for small businesses in the initial federal coronavirus stimulus legislation was exhausted, there’s debate in Congress on a deal that could include an additional $370 billion in loan programs for small businesses.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced on April 20 he would allow a statewide stay-at-home order to expire April 26, but that some restrictions could be needed for months to prevent the coronavirus outbreak from overwhelming intensive care units at hospitals.

People will still be advised to stay at home whenever possible and avoid unnecessary social interactions.

Some non-essential businesses will be allowed to reopen May 1 with precautions. Retailers would be allowed to open for curbside delivery and a phased-in public opening with physical distancing and other precautions.

Non-essential offices would be allowed to have half their work forces on-site,  but large work places will be advised to maintain symptom and temperature checks.

Elective medical procedures and dental work would resume with strict precautions to ensure protection.

The plan doesn’t call for restaurants and bars to reopen, although Polis said he hoped for a mid-May timeframe.

In a letter to Polis, Mesa County commissioners requested a waiver from statewide orders to allow local coordination of a reopening.

Under the first phase of a plan for Mesa County, gatherings would be limited to no more than 10 people and social distancing guidelines would remain in place.

Retail, personal services and restaurants would continue curbside services where applicable, maintain social distancing and use masks for employees who come into contact with the public. Business could consider bringing employees back to work in phases. Elective health care procedures would be allowed to resume.

Movie theaters, gyms and churches could operate if strict social distancing practices can be maintained. Visitations to hospitals and senior living facilities would be prohibited, however.

Under the second phase, gatherings of up to 50 people would be allowed with social distancing. Bars would be allowed to operate with diminished capacities. The requirement for grocery store workers to wear masks could be relaxed.

The third phase would lift most restrictions, although social distancing practices could be needed.

Pugliese said the extent and timing of the plan would depend on conditions and the result of testing. The number of hospitalizations related to the coronavirus and demand on health care services constitutes a key factor.

So far, Mesa County has been fortunate to have avoided the number of hospitalizations and positive cases that have occurred elsewhere in Colorado she said. As of April 19, there’d been six hospitalizations and 35 positive cases. Of the six patients who’ve been hospitalized, four were discharged.

Pugliese said it’s important to strike a balance between community and economic health and that all businesses are essential.

According to the results of an email survey conducted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce between April 3 and 10, 38 percent of respondents reported their gross receipts had declined by more than half. Another 38 percent reported receipts had declined by a quarter or less.

In a survey the chamber conducted between March 17 and 30, 26 percent of respondents reported receipts had dropped more than half and 49 percent reported a drop of less than a quarter.

Fully 40 percent of those who responded to the second survey reported furloughing or laying off employees. The first survey didn’t ask that question.

Businesses have sought relief in federal loan programs backed by the U.S. Small Business Administration, including the Paycheck Protection Program as well as economic injury disaster loans.

Dan Nordberg, regional administrator of the SBA, said almost 5,000 lenders nationwide issued a total of nearly 1.67 million loans under the Paycheck Protection Program. Nearly three-fourths of the loans were for less than $150,000

“This unprecedented partnership has worked and provided many businesses with the certainty they need to retain their employees and continue serving our communities,” Nordberg said.

The $350 billion allocated to the program under federal coronavirus stimulus legislation was exhausted, however,

There’s debate in Congress on a deal that could include an additional $370 billion in loan programs for small businesses. But as of press deadline on April 20, no legislation had yet been announced.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive office of the Grand Junction Chamber, stated in a message to members that over the long term, no loans or other assistance programs will keep firms in business.

That’s why Schwenke said she’s encouraged by plans to allow businesses to reopen and employees to return to work.

“The Mesa County Public Health Department is to be commended for gathering the best data available and seeking business input on how to implement a phased approach to opening businesses while safeguarding citizen health,” she stated.

“The chamber is confident that we can have both a healthy economy and a healthy population if we take a measured approach and work together,” Schwenke stated. “The time is now to begin planning and implementing steps that ultimately bring the entire community to the point where every business can proudly display the open sign in their store windows again.”