Eagle County economic outlook remains murky | VailDaily.com

Eagle County economic outlook remains murky

Eagle County continues to struggle with high unemployment, limited job openings and reduced consumer spending because of the COVID-19 pandemic and health restrictions, similar to much of Colorado and the U.S.

Federal data released Thursday showed 898,000 Americans making initial claims for unemployment benefits last week, an increase of 53,000 from the week prior and the highest weekly total in two months. 

Colorado saw 6,242 initial claims for unemployment benefits last week, as well as 2,532 new claims for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal stimulus program that offers benefits to self-employed and gig workers not typically eligible for unemployment.

Unemployment applications in Colorado have continued to edge up each week since late September. Since mid-March, 575,599 initial unemployment benefit claims have been filed in Colorado, and Pandemic Unemployment Assistant claims push the total to 742,894.

“The recovery is clearly slowing, and unless we get some support from D.C., it is going to keep slowing further,” said Stephan Weiler, a professor of economics at Colorado State University. “It’s hard to be really optimistic until we get a vaccine.”

The economic slowdown is occurring as coronavirus cases are again picking up, both locally and across the state and around most of the country.

Eagle County’s economy is essentially treading water with some waves still breaking against its face. The county saw 62 initial unemployment claims for the week ending Sept. 26. That’s down from a peak of 1,975 initial claims a week in late March, but also double the average weekly initial claims for 2019.

“We’re not upside down wondering where we are and swallowing water anymore, but we’re treading, and not improving the way we’d like,” said Chris Romer, the CEO of Vail Valley Partnership.

Eagle County saw 1,657 continuing claims for unemployment benefits for the week ending Sept. 26. That’s about eight times higher than the average weekly continuing claims for 2019, and a sign people are struggling to find new jobs. 

Weekly continuing unemployment claims for the county are down from a peak of 5,462 in early May. Continuing weekly claims in the county did not fall below 3,000 until late July, and did not fall below 2,000 until late August.

“Summer was a little better than expected, but we’re still in this churn period,” Romer said of Eagle County’s economy. “We still have this uncertainty around what’s going on with the virus, what’s consumer confidence going to look like, and what will the winter ski season look like.”

Locally, job postings have remained significantly lower than last year. Some industries such as real estate are doing well. Others, particularly those that rely on gatherings of people, are not. “It’s a mixed bag, to be sure,” Romer said.

Consumer spending in Eagle County dropped by more than 40% in March and April. While spending climbed through May, June and July, it declined again in August, and as of the end of that month remained down about 10% compared to January 2020 spending levels.

For now, all eyes are on the economically vital upcoming ski season. While international visitation is expected to be severely restricted, summer saw an expanded drive-up market, Romer said, with people driving from as far away as Houston and Chicago.

“Summer business levels exceeded expectations, but were still down from past years. We’ll see if that trend carries over into winter. There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Romer said.

With that ski season fast approaching, coronavirus cases have been trending up in recent weeks, both in Eagle County and across much of Colorado. 

The county has reported 67 new cases over the past two weeks. Colorado reported nearly 1,100 new cases Thursday and is averaging 874 new cases a day over the last week.

“We need to take this seriously,” Romer said of the virus and the need for people to help reduce its spread. “There are impending (coronavirus) spikes around the country and we know our winter hinges on the community really nipping it right now, wearing masks and practicing social distance. I really think that will be the number one thing that impacts how our winter season goes.”

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