Katy Brown and her husband bought EscapeWorks Denver a year ago to change things up after a career in tech — and until mid-March, business was booming.
Their escape room — where groups are “locked” in and must solve a series of puzzles to make their way out — sits in a prime location in downtown Denver, attracting hordes of tourists from the Colorado Convention Center and the 16th Street Mall.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and business just stopped. Brown had to furlough all 12 employees. Their revenue went to zero, then the books plunged into the red.
“Things were looking pretty dire for us,” Brown said.
On Saturday, EscapeWorks will join a host of Denver businesses — from clothing stores to hair salons — opening their doors for the first time in nearly two months as Mayor Michael Hancock’s stay-at-home order expires. Business owners in grim financial straits say it’s the only way to stay alive as they try to recoup lost sales while giving their employees a much-needed paycheck.
But despite the go-ahead from city leaders, many business owners are choosing to keep their stores dark, at least for now. Those who have made the choice not to resume walk-in business Saturday — or even Sunday or Monday or Tuesday — say there is simply not enough evidence yet that bringing workers and customers back into their spaces is safe and won’t contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
When Brown closed the Champa Street business on March 16 her income stopped. But the bills kept coming.
Rent and utilities still needed to be paid and she was forced to refund tens of thousands of dollars to customers who had reservations for the coming weeks.
Unlike restaurants, which could at least offer takeout and delivery, escape rooms couldn’t be dropped on someone’s doorstep.
So with Denver’s order set to expire, Brown saw no choice but to reopen.
“Ultimately, we know our customers will decide if they’re ready to do it,” she said. “We just can’t afford to make that decision for them.”
Opening their doors
Steve Weil, president of Rockmount Ranch Wear in Lower Downtown, has been able to ship his western apparel to stores around the world for the past two months, but his family-owned business has still taken a hit.
“It was not a hard decision,” Weil said about reopening Saturday. “It’s essential to the well-being of our economy.”
Many of Weil’s clients are small businesses themselves so he’s seen the effect the virus has had on shops around the globe.
“It’s not gonna be what it was,” Weil said. “But it’s very important to have people working, have people buying.”
Retail stores won’t be able to just resume normal activity, however. Shops can only have a limited number of customers browsing at any time, and shoppers all must wear masks and stay 6 feet away from others.
For Wilderness Exchange in Highland, which plans to offer lobby pickup beginning Saturday and in-person shopping on May 15, the new social-distancing world has meant completely revamping the layout of the store. Massive bins with various rock climbing shoes and harnesses designed for customer treasure-hunting are a no-go. Same with consignment gear the store used to accept but can’t adequately sanitize.
New cleaning protocols will also have to be enacted. Some clothing stores, such as Rockmount, will steam their wears after people try them on, while EscapeWorks is limiting their customers to private groups only and will disinfect surfaces after each session.
But even businesses that are able to open will not be able to bring on as many employees as they could pre-pandemic.
Feral Mountain Company in Berkeley normally doubles its workforce for the busy summer season. But with the expected downturn in customers, owner Jimmy Funkhouser said he no longer thinks that’s viable. Meanwhile, EscapeWorks and Wilderness Exchange say they’re only bringing back half of their employees.
“The largest fear we have currently is that we bring everyone back and there’s just not this return to normalcy in retail… and we don’t want to get everyone off unemployment,” said Peter Manley, Wilderness Exchange’s assortment manager. “We’re definitely moving slowly and carefully.”
But for all the Denver businesses opening up Saturday, there are plenty that aren’t yet comfortable bringing back customers.
Denver’s Twist & Shout Records has always been a family business for Paul Epstein, who co-owns the music and entertainment standby across the street from East High School with his wife Jill. That’s the viewpoint that drove Epstein to close his doors a day before the city’s stay-at-home order was issued and it’s what’s driving his decision to keep the doors locked to everyone except employees this weekend and for the foreseeable future.
“I’ve said from the beginning of this: The north star here for me is the safety and health of my employees and the community,” Epstein said. “That’s what it has to be. Anything else is crass.”
Twist & Shout on Monday will begin offering contact-free, curbside pickup from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. The record store has a strong online presence, but, for now, those two functions are as open as the 11,000-square-foot shop will get.
Epstein emphasized he’s not passing judgment on business owners feeling financial pressure to open, but with a Paycheck Protection Program loan giving him breathing room, he is going to take things slow and make sure his workers have a say.
“These are actual human beings that I love and have worked with and I’m not going to endanger them or force them to do something they are scared to do,” he said.
The idea that the virus has been contained to the point where it is safe for people to go about their lives as they did back in February is “magical thinking,” Epstein said, and not grounded in any of the scientific or medical advice he has seen to date.
Kevin Byrne, owner of Digitiqe Denver, closed his technology repair and retail shop to walk-in customers a week ahead of the city’s stay-at-home order in March — even though his location likely fit under a few of the “critical business” categories outlined in Gov. Jared Polis’ April 1 stay-at-home order. He said he does not have a timeline for when he plans to invite customers back inside after reopening for drop-off repairs on Monday.
“We’re definitely not opening our retail business. We don’t see any reason put our employees in harm’s ways if we don’t need to,” Byrne said. “I don’t really see people really clamoring to go out and browse any retail stores right now anyway.”
For Abrean SophiaMarie, reopening her Bee Sweet hair space in River North this weekend just feels too soon. The co-owner hopes to wait a bit longer and see how everything plays out over the next few weeks at other hair salons. But SophiaMarie and her business partner don’t want to commit on a reopening date because they don’t know when it will feel right.
“I think that we’re gonna be living with the situation of this virus for quite some time, so, unfortunately, I don’t think we’re gonna have an indicator that it’s safe to go back to work,” SophiaMarie said. “At some point, you make a decision — am I ready to go back to work?”
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