Coronavirus surge, lagging economy are fueling uncertainty into the holidays
Emergency session of Colorado’s Legislature aims to provide some relief
Coronavirus infections are surging in Colorado. More restrictive measures are being put in place to protect public health and the state’s hospital capacity. And the economic recovery continues to lag — particularly for lower-income workers.
All that has left many residents and business owners in Eagle County and across the state to wrestle with uncertainty and financial hardship heading into the holidays.
While Congress passed several trillion dollars of pandemic relief packages earlier this year, it has failed to pass any more since September, when several major programs for businesses and unemployed workers expired. More federal relief programs end Dec. 31, including programs that provide unemployment benefits for gig workers and the self-employed and up to 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits.
’A lot of uncertainty right now’
In the absence of additional federal aid, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis requested a special legislative session that starts Monday to try to pull together a state relief package to help struggling residents and business owners.
“There is a lot of uncertainty right now, with regards to all of it,” said Chris Romer, president of the Vail Valley Partnership. “With regards to the virus, with regards to employment and the workforce, with regard to the state’s special session.”
Statewide, weekly initial claims for unemployment increased by more than 20% to 9,171 for the week ending Nov. 14, marking the highest total for new weekly unemployment claims since late June.
While initial claims for unemployment benefits inched up by about 100 per week in Eagle County in October, the latest month for which data are available, the county continues to see significant continuing claims for unemployment benefits. Those claims totaled about 1,600 per week in October. That’s down from a peak of nearly 5,500 per week in May, yet significantly higher than the 200 per week average for 2019, a sign that many people are still struggling to find new jobs during the pandemic.
“We’ve been getting a bit busier these last couple weeks. We are starting to see more call volume related to unemployment,” said Jessica Valand, the director of Colorado’s Northwest Workforce Area.
“It’s challenging for sure,” Valand said, adding that the average unemployment benefit in Colorado is only around $300 per week. “We’re hearing from a lot of very concerned workers, especially in the service industry, who are really wondering what they can do.”
Eagle County’s unemployment rate remains at 7.3% with about 1.5 job seekers for every job posting. Many of the roughly 1,500 job openings currently posted in the county are service industry jobs with relatively low wages.
Businesses that are hiring are reporting difficulties finding people with the right skills and difficulty recruiting people because of the area’s high housing costs — both longstanding problems that are being exacerbated by the pandemic.
Compounding the lagging economic recovery is a resurgence in coronavirus infections, which are now at the highest level of the nine-month pandemic. Colorado has been averaging about 4,600 new infections a day over the last week, with 48% of the state’s critical care ventilators and 20% of its hospital beds now in use for COVID-19 patients.
At least 20 counties in Colorado, including neighboring Summit and Routt, have recently moved into level red public health restrictions that entail bar closures, no indoor dining at restaurants, and more strict capacity restrictions.
Colorado’s latest disease modeling report released Friday estimates that nearly 13% of the state’s residents have been infected to date and that 1 in 49 residents are now infectious with coronavirus, with the prevalence as high as 1 in 39 in some regions. “There is great uncertainty about December as interventions are being implemented and the holidays take place,” the report states.
Eagle County moved into level orange just over one week ago, as it continues to report more coronavirus infections. Several local schools switched to temporary remote learning before the Thanksgiving break because of increasing infections.
On Monday, Colorado’s legislators will focus on creating a coronavirus relief package for families and small businesses. Top priorities Gov. Polis put forward include aid for small businesses, housing and rental assistance, food and utility assistance, support for child care providers, expanded broadband access for students and teachers, and more funding for public health responses.
“We are in extraordinary times that need the government to respond when and how it can to try to get support quickly out to the people of Colorado during the holiday season,” State Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) said about Monday’s special legislative session.
“What I know about Eagle County is what I know about Colorado and all the mountain communities, that we are a resilient, problem-solving group of individuals. But people are reaching really scary points in their personal and business budgets where they are just not quite sure how they survive the next couple months,” Donovan said.
Donovan has heard from a range of people and business owners questioning how they can keep employees or keep their business open and how they can continue to work and provide child care when schools move to remote learning. One business in Eagle is providing meals for its employees and their families, while also trying to figure out how to keep its doors open.
“These are huge problems. We know we need to support Colorado immediately in the ways we are able to,” Donovan said.
It remains unclear how much unspent funding the Colorado Legislature will be able to scrape together from the state’s current budget for various relief programs, and how much relief those programs will be able to provide.
“I don’t think any of us will come out of this (session) and say that the problem is solved,” Donovan said. “We want to take that money and get it back out to the people of Colorado as quickly as possible to help fill the gap until the federal government can respond with another huge package.”
Romer said he sees Monday’s special legislative session as a short-term, but necessary measure for businesses and residents in Colorado.
“There is probably a lot of good that will come out of that, and that relief from the state will certainly be beneficial and helpful. But the state only has so much that they can do. There really needs to be a federal relief package,” Romer said. “The fact that the virus is spiking and the Senate took a nine day vacation over the Thanksgiving holiday is at best tone deaf and at worst malfeasance.”
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.
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