Facing the fallout: These Steamboat workers had a footing in the world, then the world turned upside down
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Even when the country is not in one of the worst economic crises in its history, Steamboat Springs is a hard place to afford to live.
For proof, ask Nicole Pepper, who works four jobs to be able save some money after paying rent on a house she shares with four roommates.
Before the outbreak of a novel coronavirus, Pepper was reaching her financial goals. Work weeks were long, but she was able to set money aside for a trip abroad she hoped to take in the fall.
But as the virus swept throughout the U.S., resulting in 2,000 deaths as of Saturday and upending nearly every aspect of life, Pepper has found herself completely unemployed. With no income and expenses to pay, the future she had planned has crumbled before her eyes.
“Now all my savings are going to go down the drain,” she said.
A nation unemployed
Pepper’s story is not unique. Almost 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment this past week, according to data from the U.S. Labor Department, the highest number ever recorded.
As public health orders shuttered businesses and forced Coloradans to stay in their homes, people have struggled more than ever to make ends meet. Though some see the mandates as draconian, it is hard to argue with the logic of the experts who developed the public health orders. After containing the virus proved to be unsuccessful, the number of cases skyrocketed. Countries that failed to enact strict health measures early on, such as Italy and Spain, report among the highest death tolls in the world.
Reducing the number of new cases by limiting social contact, a strategy known as flattening the curve, has been one of the only effective ways to slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives.
“What we are really doing is buying time to better fight this disease,” Dr. Dave Wilkinson, an emergency medicine physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center, said in an interview last week.
Though it comes at a cost, many would argue the world cannot put a price tag on human life.
Confronting the costs
As businesses, big and small, grapple with the economic consequences of widespread shutdowns, many have had to make tough decisions that leave people without jobs and also without a place to stay.
Paige Book has worked seasonally at Steamboat Resort for the past two years. On March 14, Alterra Mountain Co., which owns the resort, announced it would temporarily close all of its ski areas as a way to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The announcement came hours before Gov. Jared Polis ordered the shutdown of all downhill skiing operations in the state.
Four days later, Book received an email from the resort asking her to turn in her uniform. Citing public health concerns, the email also urged those who could to leave The Ponds, the ski resort’s employee housing complex on the east side of the city.
“With the current situation related to COVID-19 and the urgent need to reduce the spread of illness, we are asking winter seasonal tenants to depart as soon as possible,” the email said.
The email also said March’s rent would be prorated, but no discounts would be given on April rent. Book and her fellow employees received an extra week of pay.
The emails left Book confused about what to do. Health orders were telling her to stay in place, and she did not know if she or any of her roommates had been exposed to the virus. The thought of leaving so quickly seemed reckless.
“I felt more shocked, because it was so abrupt,” Book said. “But I am definitely feeling the pressure of an ultimatum after that email.”
Book has since bought a plane ticket to Hawaii, where her father lives. Her flight is scheduled for April 16, but she is unsure whether or not she will follow through with the plan.
“I’m trying to decide what’s best for me and for everyone,” Book said.
The resort continues to voice concerns about the spread of COVID-19 at The Ponds. Though resort officials did not respond to requests for comment, they are considering a permanent closure of The Ponds and seeking guidance from public health officials, according to Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton, who spoke about the resort’s concerns during a special commissioners meeting Friday.
To help employees, the resort has handed out free food following the closure of the ski area. It continues to make donations to the community and to those affected by the pandemic.
The costs of the economic fallout have not just been monetary. Many have had to rethink and reevaluate their life goals.
Brooke Carpenter, who worked as a server in Steamboat, had just returned early from a monthlong yoga training in Costa Rica to find out she’d lost her job.
Her employer offered for her to pick up a few shifts at the takeout window, but it would not be nearly as much as she normally made. Carpenter also would have to wait two weeks from her return date before working out of fears she may have been exposed to the virus during her travels.
An avid yogi, Carpenter took the 200-hour training in Costa Rica as a step toward becoming a yoga instructor at similar retreats around the world. She was saving up money at her serving job to achieve this goal and continue traveling. For now, that all has been put on hold.
“For the long term, I have to reevaluate,” Carpenter said, unsure of what exactly her plans entail. “It really just depends on how long this lasts.”
Historic stimulus package
For the short term, Pepper, Book and Carpenter are trying to make the most of the resources available to help them weather the consequences, economic and otherwise, of the public health crisis.
On Friday, President Donald Trump signed into law a $2 trillion stimulus package, the largest in U.S. history, to help American families and businesses grappling with the disruption. It gives single adults with an adjusted gross income of $75,000 or less a one-time payment of $1,200, though more payments could be approved in the future.
It also expands who is eligible for unemployment, including self-employed or part-time workers. For those who are unemployed, the package gives an additional $600 per week for four months on top of state benefits.
Amid a flooded unemployment claim system, Pepper had to apply on Friday during an allotted time slot based on her last name. She is awaiting a response.
Kristina Petrash, another local worker who lost two jobs amid the pandemic, applied weeks ago but has yet to receive any benefits. With no source of steady income, she has focused her efforts on her artwork, some of which she has sold through local shops in Steamboat.
One of her most recent pieces, an oil paint on canvas, is more abstract than her usual work. She constructed the frame and stretched the canvas herself during her newfound free time.
“I was feeling stir-crazy and wanted to feel empowered to do something,” she explained.
Drawing inspiration from Georgia O’Keefe’s famous “Music, Pink and Blue No.2,” Petrash is exploring emotional responses to the pandemic and the forced containment that has emerged as a result.
“It allows freedom in this isolation,” Petrash said of the piece, one of few that she has created solely for her own benefit. “It combats the restrictions we are put under.”
Times of hardship can bring people closer. Businesses in Steamboat, already a tight-knit community, have rallied together to help those who have been the most affected.
Meryl Meranski, one of the owners of Snow Bowl, the bowling alley and restaurant on the west side of Steamboat, had to make the same difficult decision as other companies to lay off all of her hourly employees.
A Steamboat native, Meranski could not stomach the thought of people struggling to put food on the table. So, she helped to start Family Bowl, a food service that has provided hundreds of free meals this week to displaced workers.
“It’s geared toward people in the restaurant business, but of course, we will never turn anyone down who needs a hot meal,” Meranski said.
People can pick up food from 5 to 7 p.m. at the front entrance of the bowling alley. Volunteers bring the meals directly to car windows to limit any physical contact as a health precaution.
As of Friday, almost 900 meals had been handed out, according to a post on the bowling alley’s Facebook page.
Other businessea are pitching in to help with the effort, including Steamboat Resort, Rex’s Family of Restaurants, Mahogany Ridge Brewery, Steamboat Meat & Seafood Co., 41North, Dude & Dan’s, 8th Street Steakhouse, Off the Beaten Path, Hayden Fresh Farm, Moon Hill Dairy, Sharon’s and Powder Day Donuts.
People can donate to the Family Bowl initiative through a GoFundMe page at gofundme.com/f/family-bowl.
The original goal was to raise $2,000 to cover food expenses, but as of Saturday, almost $5,000 had been donated.
“It’s not about the money. It’s just about keeping it going,” Meranski said.
While she said it can be easy to isolate oneself and act selfishly in such hard times, Meranski finds joy in generosity.
“It’s been really special to us as locals and as a business,” she said. “This is what Steamboat is all about.”
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The iconic cone-shaped building on the corner of Yampa and 11th streets in downtown Steamboat Springs was once a wood-waste burner before being moved to become the home for Sore Saddle Cyclery and Moots Bicycles.