Breckenridge, Colorado

COVID-19’s Impacts on Boulder

Posted in The Daily Camera
December 21, 2020 at 8:00 a.m.

Here we are in the homestretch of the holiday season. Most of us will celebrate in 2020 very differently than years past. Of course, most of 2020 has been surreal and life will not be completely back to normal anytime soon.

Since late spring when it became clear that our COVID journey would be a long one, my company, RRC Associates, has been doing research focused on how the pandemic is affecting the attitudes and behaviors of people across the country. One of these projects is a partnership with the International Downtown Association. Working  through the association’s members, we surveyed nearly 4,000 people in more than 25 cities across the U.S., including Boulder. Here is what we found.

More than most places, people in Boulder are quite happy with how local governments and businesses are responding to COVID. Nearly two-thirds of us think that local officials have handled the crisis “about right.: That is almost double the national average. Almost three-quarters of locals think that restaurants and retailers have done a good jobs in response to the pnademic. Just half of respondents nationally say the same.

Hats off to our local officials and to our local business owners!

Related to the above numbers, 70% of Boulder residents feel safe and comfortable shopping in retail stores. When asked to compare small “boutique” shops to big boxes like Costco and Target, people feel safer shopping in the smaller stores. This is good news for downtown merchants and other local businesses during this critical holiday season.

But there is also bad news for small retailers. More than half of us locally will spend less than normal this year on holiday shopping, while only 4% expect to spend more. And we are shifting our spending away from local shops to online retail in huge numbers. Nearly 60% of Boulder residents say they will spend more online this year compared to just 6% who will spend more in stores.

Of course, online shopping has been growing for years, but these numbers represent a huge acceleration in the trend away from brick-and-mortar establishments. The impacts will be disruptive for both businesses and local economies long after COVID is over.

Restaurants are dealing with similar challenges. While more than two-thirds of Boulder residents feel safe dining outdoors, just 28% say they are comfortable with indoor dining. SO even if restrictions loosen up and eating indoors can resume, most people will not return anytime soon.

Speaking of restaurants, the expansion of outdoor dining spaces is very popular locally and across the nation. Here in Boulder, more than half of respondents want to make the expanded outdoor spaces permanent and 80% think they should remain in place at least part of the time after COVID is gone. Out local leaders and business owners, along with their counterparts across the county, will need to deal with this issue starting next spring and summer.

Another impact of the pandemic is the shift to working remotely. It is a bigger deal here than most other places. Nationally, 49% of respondents say they are working from home due to COVID versus 62% in Boulder. Locally just 14% say they expect to be back in the office within six months and half say it is “unknown” if or when they will ever return. This is a big concern for landlords as well as small businesses who rely on office workers to sustain them. If companies and their employees collectively decide to stay at home, the devastation of COVID for some sectors of the economy will endure long after the disease is gone.

A final question on our survey asked people about their biggest concerns related to COVID and its lasting impact. Surprisingly, the threat to their health does not top the list. Neither does their personal financial situation. The top concern for most people in Boulder and nationwide is the loss of small businesses and the related impact on their communities.

Think about this in the remaining days before Christmas and the remaining months before the COVID threat is over. WE all need to step up and do what we can do support local shops, restaurants and other small businesses. The vibrant and bustling Boulder that we all want to get out and enjoy next spring and summer depends on it.

Sean Maher is the CDO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at

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