As COVID-19 spreads across the nation, Colorado Springs businesses are laying out plans and bracing for economic impacts.
Many employers are actively encouraging employees to take more precautions to avoid contracting the virus, such as washing hands, staying home if sick, cleaning and disinfecting objects and surfaces, and covering their noses and mouths when coughing and sneezing.
But outside of the standard recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, many local businesses are taking a wait-and-see-approach before implementing concrete plans to prepare for worst-case scenarios.
Industry leaders spoke with the Business Journal to address what — if anything — they’re doing to address the spread of the virus and the fear it provokes.
COLORADO SPRINGS AIRPORT
In late February, the International Air Transport Association predicted a global revenue loss of $27.8 billion for the aviation industry worldwide from COVID-19. But on March 5, citing a “turn of events … almost without precedent,” the IATA dramatically revised its estimates, saying revenue loss would likely be between $63 billion (in the event the virus is well contained in current markets with over 100 cases) and $113 billion (with a broader spread of coronavirus).
At Colorado Springs Airport, there has been little impact on flights so far. Flight schedules are running as usual, and Communications Manager Aidan Ryan said any decisions on canceling flights would come from the Federal Aviation Administration; COS has no role in those decisions.
February enplanement numbers won’t be calculated until the end of March, but Ryan said judging by parking numbers — which don’t have a direct correlation with enplanements, but can give a sense of passengers traveling from COS — the airport has not seen any significant decreases.
“Where the airlines are seeing the most impact is with international flights,” Ryan said. “We only have domestic flights. So we aren’t currently experiencing any restrictions on flights, but there may be a fraction of impact due to connecting international flights.”
Ryan said COS is evaluating options that would allow the airport to continue operations if a worst-case scenario unfolds and large numbers of the airport’s 107 city employees have to miss work.
Plans include evaluating the status of certain low-priority administration projects for COS and, if need be, putting them on hold until the third quarter to ensure funds are available for day-to-day operations.
“The primary focus will be essential staff — which is security, operations, maintenance — who will essentially keep the airport open and operational,” Ryan said. “If, perchance, we did have a large amount of [essential staff] out sick, then we might see an impact on services.”
Ryan said COS is taking extra precautions to ensure cleanliness at the airport, such as setting up additional hand sanitizing stations and directing staff to clean surfaces more frequently.
They’re also trying to inform the public that it is still safe to fly.
“There’s a lot of fear around flying, and obviously people need to take personal responsibility — so if you are sick, it’s probably not the best idea to fly if you are contagious,” Ryan said. “But for the general public it is still safe to fly.
“We’re hoping that we won’t have as much of a downturn as they’re predicting in the airline industry overall. But that’s really going to be forthcoming in these next weeks as the virus is spreading.”
According to a Feb. 27 statement from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the agency is currently unaware of any reports suggesting COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging.
But food service providers are considering what they’ll need to do if the virus becomes so prevalent it leads to widespread absenteeism.
Jay Gust, owner of the Ascent Restaurant Group, which includes TAPAteria and Pizzeria Rustica, said the only measure he’s taken so far has been to distribute pamphlets throughout his restaurants to inform employees of the “do’s and don’ts” of dealing with the virus.
“You need to inform, but not scare people,” Gust said. “In the worst-case scenario, I’ve already talked to our insurance company and they don’t even know what business interruption would even look like if that was the case.
“So we’re kind of dabbling in something we’ve never had to deal with before.”
Gust said that Ascent has a policy that insists that employees who are sick stay home, and that because Ascent is a restaurant group and not a sole establishment, there are typically other employees available to pick up shifts when someone can’t work due to illness.
But if things progress to a point where large numbers of employees miss work, Gust said adjusting to the shortage could mean cutting hours of operation.
“It would probably mean modification of hours, where the unsick people would be taking care of it and we would just kind of make do with what we have,” Gust said.
During a March 10 press conference in which he declared a state of emergency, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment has been directed to create emergency rules to ensure paid sick leave for workers awaiting coronavirus testing who work in food handling, hospitality, child care, health care and education.
Local manufacturing companies, which often rely on imported materials for their products, could be impacted by the spread of the virus, particularly if it causes unpredictability in their supply lines.
“We are expecting some impact,” said Patrick Scott, president of Advantage Manufacturing of Colorado Springs. “Luckily, most of our material comes from America or U.S. sources, so we’re not too worried about it. But … we don’t have a full plan of action at this point.”
Manufacturers also stand to suffer from absenteeism if large numbers of employees get sick, particularly because their workforce is typically highly skilled.
“If it really hits Colorado Springs, I don’t know what we’d do — whether we’d have to shut down for a week, or what,” Scott said. “We have three temp services that we can pull people from, but we are a very skilled industry. So it’s not like you can just plug a bunch of people into certain positions. Some positions you can, but the actual people doing the manufacturing are hard to come by.”
John Sunderman, CEO of Machine Build Technologies LLC, the parent company of Springs Fabrication Inc., said the company is starting to evaluate flexible work schedules that could be implemented in case of school closures.
“So if one of the parents has to stay home with the kids, maybe we will open up our nights,” Sunderman said. “And we’ve also talked internally about doing some enhancements … to time off, just to make it more advantageous for someone to stay home if they’re feeling sick. Because you do get the effect of people wanting to go to work even though they’re sick. I think it’s a natural inclination for a lot of people, especially if they’re hourly. So it would just give them some incentive to just stay home.”
This year has had all the makings of a banner season for Colorado Springs tourism, aided by the opening of the $90 million U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in April, and the anticipated reopening of Flying W Ranch in May.
The city even landed at No. 13 on The New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2020, bookended by the independent state of Lesotho in South Africa and Krakow, Poland.
The impacts of COVID-19 on local tourism have so far been minimal.
Doug Price, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs tourism organization VisitCOS, said only a few small groups — including some from overseas — that previously planned to visit the Springs have recently canceled their hotel stays.
At press time March 11, one of the city’s biggest conferences, the 36th annual Space Symposium hosted by the Space Foundation, was still moving forward with plans at The Broadmoor for March 30-April 2.
“The Space Foundation team has been closely monitoring the unfolding situation with COVID-19/Coronavirus and is following all of the available public health guidance to assure a safe and successful 36th Space Symposium,” the Space Foundation said in a statement.
“Plans are continuing to move forward … to ensure it will be our most successful gathering yet.”
But on March 13, the Space Foundation announced it would postpone the symposium.
“At this time, we have not identified a date when we will be reassembling the world’s space community in Colorado Springs,” Rich Cooper, the Space Foundation’s VP for strategic communications and outreach,” said via email. “We are working with our partners and members to identify future dates and details that will provide everyone a successful environment that the Space Symposium delivers every year.”
On March 10 the National Cybersecurity Center announced the cancellation of Cyber Symposium 2020. Previously held in Colorado Springs at The Broadmoor, the event attracts an international audience and was scheduled this year for June 15-16 in Aurora.
Another large conference hosted annually in Woodland Park, Charis Bible College’s Men’s Advance 2020, has shifted its format from in-person to online.
The event typically draws as many as 1,000 outside registrants, and this year’s speakers include former NFL Coach Tony Dungy, and sportscaster James “JB” Brown. Brown and Dungy will still speak at the conference, but only by livestream.
“College representatives made the decision in order to comply with requests from Teller County health officials regarding large gathering[s],” the college announced in a March 9 statement.
Price said event organizers are having to make tough decisions whether to proceed with or cancel planned gatherings, but that so far, disruption in Colorado Springs has been minimal.
Asked how bad the COVID-19 outbreak would have to be for the city to actively dissuade out-of-towners and conventions from coming here, Price said it’s virtually unfathomable.
“I don’t think there’s a city in the United States that would take that position,” Price said. “It’s the exact opposite — cities are doing everything they can … in order to get meetings and conventions to come.
“So Colorado Springs would never dissuade people from coming. It’s just not in the cards.”
Colorado College announced March 10 that it is taking proactive measures in response to the spread of the virus, including extending its Spring Break, canceling large events on campus and moving to virtual instruction starting Monday, March 30.
The college, which operates on a block schedule, has told students they should plan to remain off campus until “at least the end of Block 7 [April 15],” and possibly the rest of the academic year. CC will also cancel “most, if not all, large campus events” scheduled through the end of Block 7.
The college has extended Spring Break by one week, through Sunday, March 29.
“Because the Block Plan allows us more flexibility, we will monitor the situation and determine mid-Block 7 if we can resume in-person classes for Block 8,” the CC statement said.
“The president’s cabinet is meeting daily to make decisions on our response. A campus task force has been planning for the possibility of online classes and is supporting faculty. We understand that there are many implications of these decisions, and we will be working through them and following up with [students] in the coming days.”
Pikes Peak Community College administrators have been meeting daily to address the college’s response, according to communications coordinator Karen Kovaly.
At press time March 11, Kovaly said things were “moving too quickly” for the college to make an official statement at that point, adding PPCC is “closely monitoring what is happening with other colleges.” She said PPCC would make a more definitive statement later on.
UCCS is also trying to reduce risk, transitioning to remote instruction, encouraging high-risk individuals to work from home, and restricting domestic and international travel.
After its Spring Break, UCCS will implement remote learning capabilities for two weeks — from March 30 through April 13 — for classes that are able to do so. UCCS said in-person classes will begin again Tuesday, April 14, “unless a different decision is made prior to that date.”
All large campus-sponsored events through the end of April will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the interim vice chancellor for student success.
“The safety of our community is our top priority,” the UCCS statement said.
“We realize that our COVID-19 policy guidelines will cause disruption — and that you will have additional questions based on the above information — but the risk of not acting outweighs the inconvenience of these temporary measures.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include the March 13 announcement that the 36th annual Space Symposium is being postponed.