SILVERTON – After fires in 2018 and near-record snowfall and avalanches in 2019, merchants in Silverton thought they had seen everything nature could throw at them.
Few suspected one of nature’s smallest villains, a microscopic pathogen, would claim the top spot as a business killer.
“This is our third year. We moved here in 2017, and took over for 2018, so we really don’t know what normal looks like,” said Jerry Chambers, who co-owns Silverton Hardware. “One thing we know is that we’ve got to get this town open for us to do well.”
Since May 1, San Juan County, Colorado, has been following Gov. Jared Polis’ safer-at-home executive order that bans travel of more than 10 miles from home for recreation.
DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce, said the only local advisory now in place from San Juan County Public Health advises people returning to the county from elsewhere to self-isolate for 14 days and avoid populated community areas.
Polis’ safer-at-home order may have given Coloradans on the Front Range a bit more breathing room.
But in this remote mountain town at the end of the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge line, the number of people now free to visit is only negligibly higher than when the county had its own restrictive locals-only policy in place that banned out-of-county residents from Silverton for all but essential visits for the month of April.
“I wish Gov. Polis would allow rural counties more flexibility and not lock down every place in the state like it’s metro Denver,” said Molly Barela, co-owner with her husband, Floyd, of Golden Block Brewery. “I think the quarantine was right at first, but now it’s overkill. How many people are there in Silverton, 600 people, 700 people? Everybody knows who has the virus. Now, a quarantine is just overkill.”
Barela said she tried to keep the Golden Block open for curbside pickup service the first week of the COVID-19 restrictions, but with Silverton’s small population, she was losing more money being open than she would closing down.
Five or six Silverton restaurants tried to remain open, but she said they all closed within a week facing the same grim business realities that shuttered the Golden Block’s doors.
“When the governor issued his first order, in one fell swoop 90% of the workforce in Silverton lost their jobs. What are you going to do if you have no income? You’re not going to be ordering out to eat,” she said.
COVID-19 restrictions came in the slow season for the brewpub, and initially Barela furloughed 13 employees. However, she received a Paycheck Protection Program loan and brought her workers back on the payroll.
They helped paint the front of the brewpub, cleaned it, refinished the floors and did other odd jobs.
However, Barela says she’s worried she’s going to be forced to re-furlough her workers in two weeks when her PPP funds expire if restaurants are not allowed to reopen at a sustainable level.
“I wanted to pay my employees if I could. I can’t survive in my business without people available who can work for me,” she said. “I know my employees have to pay rent and utilities. I know they have to buy groceries and feed their kids. I know where those dollars are going.”
Although spring isn’t a big season for Silverton Hardware, Chambers said he’s actually increased sales this spring as residents remain at home and shop more frequently with him. He’s also begun stocking items like household cleaners, toilet paper, paper towels and sanitizers, items Silvertonians would normally make runs to Durango’s Walmart or Home Depot to buy.
“We don’t know if they’re going to keep buying those kinds of items from us, but we are seeing more local customers, and I think we’ll keep some of them,” he said.
Gallegos said business openings in Silverton are limited, but the business community is working to set up procedures to comply with any state health requirements for reopening.
“Our business owners are wearing masks and have strict sanitation procedures in place to protect their employees and patrons,” she said in an email. “The town of Silverton and the Chamber of Commerce have created a local ambassador program where we provide coaching and assistance in setting up businesses to succeed in the new (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) requirements for reopening.”
The news that the D&SNG won’t be running until at least June 8 means the prime summer season will likely be one where businesses in Silverton look to simply survive.
Chambers said the train doesn’t help him directly because he’s too far from the Silverton Depot. Still, when the train is fueling businesses downtown, they’re remodeling, making repairs, and that helps make summer his busiest season.
“The train’s a trickle-down effect for us. If the businesses aren’t doing well in town, they’re not going to be doing business with us. We’ll definitely feel it if the train isn’t running,” he said.
He decided to go ahead with a planned 200-square-foot addition to the store devoted to camping and RV supplies, another important part of his summer business. The decision to go ahead with the addition came when he realized he needed a place to stock all the cleaning and toiletry items he now carries.
Barela is hopeful the resumption of in-person dining will coincide with Polis opening up recreational visits and clearing a path for at least a sustainable level of commerce to resume in Silverton.
“I think we’ll survive, but it won’t be a normal year,” she said.