For a lot of the people living there today, the economic struggles Pueblo experienced forty some years ago might seem unthinkable. Its two largest employers, the steel mill and the Army depot, nearly disappeared overnight. Foreign steel made Pueblo’s operation unsustainable and the depot fell victim to a federal downsizing. Unemployment launched like a rocket. One in five jobs just vanished.
A different kind of downsizing is happening today, one created by the growing strength of a virus that threatens the city. The Coronavirus has forced the Governor to order non-essential personnel to work at home. He’s also told bars and restaurants to lock things up---except for takeout---for at least the next thirty days. The rippling effect has washed over scores of businesses that, just weeks ago, were enjoying a healthy economy.
“We’ve had to make significant changes on how the city does business,” said Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar. “We’re asking people not to show up at City Hall,” if they have business to conduct, “Call first,” said Gradisar. Issues might be able to be resolved over the phone and “everybody can maintain distance.”
Gradisar was a young attorney when economic calamity hit the city in the 70’s and 80’s. It took years for Pueblo to dig itself out. To lure new business, it taxed itself, offered potential suitors every economic incentive necessary it could to come to town, from sweetheart rents to basic infrastructure builds. Desperate times called for desperate measures. But they worked and Pueblo was rewarded, and it recovered.
For Gradisar, an attorney used to helping people through rough times, it’s a different challenge today. But it’s also one he and the city are facing head-on. “We’re are trying to let people know that we’re going to get through this,” he said. With a clarity of purpose, said Gradisar, “we can hold it together.”
As a new week unfolded, Pueblo had two recorded cases of Coronavirus, a 37-year-old male and a 47-year-old female, said Sarah Joseph, Pueblo County Health and Environment spokesperson. The department has also created a pair of websites (www.pueblohealth.org and www.puebloemergency.info) to keep citizens informed. It is also providing daily updates from its Joint Information Center.
Steve Henson was a young reporter when the economic sky fell on Pueblo in the 70’s and 80’s. While there are similarities in terms of the economic impact, Covid-19 is unlike anything Pueblo or any other city has ever encountered. The veteran newspaper man said it seems like old science fiction, likening it to the ‘Twilight Zone.’ “One of those episodes where the town is empty and only one or two people remain. Very chilling.”
The virus has forced Henson and his staff to resort to improvisation and imagination in putting out southern Colorado’s most important daily newspaper. Maintaining social distance has also become essential. Using tools that tie all Americans together, including emails and texts, the paper is getting out on-time and to everyone who reads it on the internet.
Henson knows the daunting challenge Pueblo and other cities face in a very uncertain time, but also remains confident. “When we come out on the other side---and we will---we will pour into our stores, restaurants and other businesses to help them recover.”
When the Governor issued his state of emergency and executive orders to shutter bars and restaurants and pare staffs to maintain safe social distance, one of Pueblo’s landmark small businesses, Armstrong Jewelers, thought it would be fine. “We’re doing OK,” said owner, Diana DeLuca Armstrong in a Friday conversation . But late Monday morning, she and her husband decided it would be wiser to close shop until a better understanding of the virus is known. Resuming normal business, for now, is on hold.
“We love our town and believe in each other,” said Henson. “Pueblo has a soul, a history, an identity. And that identity is this: We’re tough and resilient. We’ll be OK.”