The tulips on the Pearl Street Mall have been spectacular this spring. Of course, those bulbs were planted last fall before anyone had ever heard of COVID-19 and Corona was still just a beer that needed a slice of lime to give it some flavor.
Sadly, the world we lived in before the pandemic is gone and it is not coming back. Yes there will be a recovery and we will eventually start traveling, dining out and resuming favorite traditions like running the Bolder Boulder. But none of these things will ever look quite the same as they did. The only question is how dramatic the changes will be.
Let’s start with retail. The last two months have been a great time to own a liquor store or sell groceries. But for just about every other brick-and-mortar retailer, it has been a train wreck. March saw the biggest drop in retail sales ever recorded. Apparel sales plummeted by more than 50% just as stores were filling up with summer inventory.
The shutdown has dramatically accelerated existing trends like online shopping. Already a huge force in American retail, Amazon will emerge bigger and more dominant than ever. I was on a Zoom call last week with people discussing how they have always resisted shopping online because they like the experience of going to stores and supporting local businesses. Now they have been forced to buy online and guess what? They love it. Like millions of others, they may never kick their new habit.
Department stores that were already dying before COVID will not survive. Nieman Marcus declared bankruptcy and others will certainly follow. But the most painful casualties will be the local shops like the ones that have made downtown Boulder so unique and vibrant for so many years. While big boxes like Costco and Walmart can easily absorb new rules like plexiglass barriers, merchandise quarantines and in-store customer limits, these are big burdens for small local shops that were already struggling with high rent, taxes and payroll costs.
This is where you can help. Many shops in Boulder reopened over the weekend and they desperately need our support. Of course, you should not venture out until you feel safe but, when that day comes, please think about shopping local. Many of these merchants are our neighbors and they need our support now more than ever before.
And what about restaurants? Of course, they have been equally devastated by the economic shutdown and are still weeks away from being allowed to serve customers with anything beyond takeout or delivery. Like retail, my big fear is we will lose many of our local eateries who just don’t have the resources to absorb the one-two punch of lost business and new restrictions when they are finally able to reopen their dining rooms and patios.
National chains like Chipotle and Starbucks have huge cash reserves and can withstand months of lost sales and the expense of new regulations. In fact, they could come out of this mess in better shape than ever as their smaller competitors go out of business and their market share increases dramatically as a result.
But I don’t want to live in a world where my only restaurant choices are between national chains and Pearl Street looks like every other generic street in America.
A huge challenge for restaurants is the limit on how many people they will be allowed to seat in their dining rooms. As we enter the prime season for outdoor dining, the city of Boulder has the power to help. It should work with local restaurants to dramatically expand options to serve customers outside including those who want to have a drink with their meal. Parking spaces can be converted to expanded patios that allow social distancing. Areas of the Pearl Street Mall can be roped off for the same purpose. Of course, liquor licenses and rules will have to be loosened but these are extraordinary times that call for bold action.
The Downtown Boulder Partnership is already working hard on a plan to greatly expand outdoor seating and the city should quickly embrace it both downtown and for the rest of Boulder.
And when the day comes that you feel safe to go out shopping, dining or drinking, please make a genuine effort to choose local merchants and restaurants. The kind of community we will be left with after this mess is over depends on it.
Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org to blog