History is the bookmark for almost everything, including a modern day pandemic, the likes of which had not been seen in a century. But COVID-19 brought the reality of The Great Influenza, a 20th Century nightmare, roaring back. It, like its predecessor, swept over the country and the world transforming the unimaginable into reality, viciously invading lives, leaving sorrow in its wake and sidetracking economies big and small.
Pueblo, southern Colorado’s economic hub with approximately 160,000 residents, recorded more than 16,000 cases of the virus while suffering more than 360 deaths. The vaccines and a variety of state and county mandated health policies have slowed things allowing a degree of normalcy to return. But the rebuild will take time.
“We lost a substantial amount of convention and event business,” said Donielle Kitzman, Vice President of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce. But the virus’s shadow extended well beyond that. “At our worst,” said Kitzman, “businesses were struggling just to keep their doors open.” And even when doors were open, no one was passing through them. “Last year we saw a 22 percent decrease in our lodging tax,” said Kitzman.
One Pueblo business that has been a beacon in the city for more than a half a century, was left wondering if it would even have a future. “We were closed for all of April 2000,” said Diana DeLuca Armstrong, Vice President of Armstrong Jewelers. For a small business when money is moving only in one direction, things can get rough. But the virus took precedence. It became the only thing people were concerned about. “We had to obey COVID restrictions.” That meant limiting customers in the store and cutting staff. It was a tough, but in the end, the only decision if the store would remain open.
Without gift buying for seasonal events, including high school and college graduations and summer weddings, concern set in, said DeLuca Armstrong. Luckily, decades-long customers and others continued to support the store and, while 2020 still lingers as one to forget, business is returning. Staff cuts, however, remain in place.
Kitzman said city and county leaders worked together to stabilize the economy against the virus’s impact. “It made a lot of us collaborate,” she said. “One Pueblo,” a business task force, was created during the darkest times of the pandemic. It formulated a plan targeting both workforce and education and “how we align those two to supplement each other.” It also brought in a consultant that assessed regional needs to put things back in a forward motion.
One thing that Pueblo did to combat the economic slowdown, said Kitzman, was to use a half-cent sales tax set aside to provide loans and grants for businesses to weather the pandemic. Local businesses also did their part, she said. “We’re fortunate. The majority of businesses have found ways to move people to part-time and not completely close their doors.”
In February, Vestas, one of the region’s foundational employers announced layoffs. The company, which manufactures wind turbines and towers, cut 450 jobs, including 120 in Pueblo. The company did not indicate whether or not the cutback was the result of the pandemic or if it was connected to other factors. The Pueblo Economic and Development Corporation said it would do what it can to find other employment opportunities for affected workers. At its peak operation, Vestas employed 800 Pueblo area workers.
Kitzman is realistic about characterizing a total return to normalcy but remains optimistic. “Spring is a time for rebirth and the city feels that same way,” she said. The Chamber executive said she is not aware of business shuttering for good because of Covid, only that it did take a toll. But the Chamber’s phones are once again ringing with inquiries about coming back to the ‘Steel City.’
“We’re getting calls daily looking for relocation information,” she said. People are calling wanting to know about education---schools and colleges---utilities, job creation and development.
There were times, though, when the struggle had to concede to the virus.