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Coronavirus

Hard work made Greeley’s downtown hip and happening. Two months of social distancing could make it all disappear.

Government-ordered shutdown of in-person dining and drinking and gatherings of more than 10 people may cause Greeley’s booming entertainment zone to go bust.

Moxi Theater owner Ely Corliss sits on the stage of the downtown Greeley nightclub moments after he learned Gov. Polis had shut down all in-person drinking and dining and gatherings of more than 10 people for a month to try and slow the spread of the coronavirus in Colorado. (Valerie Vampola, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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GREELEY — Ely Corliss’ phone rang in his office at the Moxi Theater on the morning of March 12. Typically, that meant opportunity. But that morning, the ring kicked off the worst day in his life. 

Corliss used his business acumen and experience as the band booker and sound guy for AF Ray’s, a Garden City dive bar he turned into the local area’s hottest music joint, to create the Moxi Theater seven years ago on Ninth Street in Greeley.

The music venue anchored the Greeley Downtown Development Authority’s efforts to flip the area’s reputation as a gang-ridden, feedlot-smelling ghost town into a hip, fun place to party. Times were tough, but Corliss danced across the razor-thin margins well enough to partner with Brian Seifried, founder and CEO of the Wing Shack Wings chain, to build a second business, Luna’s Tacos and Tequila. It opened last summer, a place with a rooftop deck, a pink neon sign that says “Till Death Do Us Taco” and a menu with grapefruit and kiwi margs and sirloin quesadillas. 

But that morning, the coronavirus canceled one band tour after another as groups saw no reason to travel to Greeley. Corliss lost tens of thousands of dollars that day.

Just a few days later, on Monday, the bad news got worse: Gov. Jared Polis shut down Luna’s and the Moxi, and all other bars and restaurants in the state, hoping to stem the community spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, by eliminating in-person dining and large gatherings for at least 30 days. 

The City of Greeley also closed one of its main hubs, the Union Colony Civic Center, and other attractions, including the Ice Haus and the Greeley Recreation Center. The Union Colony center canceled or rescheduled all acts until March 30 at the earliest, postponing shows by Don McLean and others. Other events that typically serve as an economic shot in the arm, including the Greeley/UNC Jazz Festival, also were canceled, and University of Northern Colorado students were sent home. 

And just like that, businesses in Greeley’s downtown that thrived in a boom created in the past few years by events such as Friday Fest, investments including the new DoubleTree by Hilton hotel and convention center, and stalwarts such as the Union Colony center and the Moxi were quiet once again. 

“I think it will take a year to recover, not just in the economy but in the entertainment industry here,” Corliss said, “and that’s if we resume April 9. If this goes until May 11 or so, it’ll be catastrophic for the Moxi and Luna’s both.”

On Thursday, Polis extended the shutdown to April 30.

Golden brews and great noms all gone 

Just to show you how far Greeley’s downtown had come, and just how fast things have progressed, when Denver Nuggets Head Coach Michael Malone was asked last week what he would do with his time after the NBA season was suspended, he said he was going to drive up to WeldWerks Brewing Co. and enjoy some Juicy Bits at the brewery a few blocks north of Moxi. 

People drink and talk Thursday night at Weld Werks Brewery, 508 8th Ave., in downtown Greeley. (Josh Polson, Special to The Colorado Sun)

It was a momentary victory, of course, but it showed that Greeley was a fun place, with many great places to drink and eat and listen to music, or drink and eat and see an artsy movie at Kress Cinema and Lounge. 

Recent upstarts, such as the Greeley Chophouse, downtown’s first real fancy steakhouse in decades, were raking in money. 

“We were just crushing it,” Aaron Wooten, who owns the chophouse and the Cranford Cove Tea Tavern with his wife, Sarah, said about January and February, the most successful two months in the restaurant’s history. “We are now on track to have our worst month in our history, and honestly by a lot.”

Wooten said on Monday, before Gov. Polis shut down all in-person dining, he was already considering closing, as customers, frightened of the economy and the virus, stayed away. But the thought left him worried for his 30 employees. He already closed Cranford in November for remodeling. 

“There’s nothing anyone can do,” he said. “It’s not like there’s a restaurant down the street that’s killing it. This is just a tale of two months.”

In Weld County there are about 9,666 hospitality workers employed by 568 businesses, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Many of them will be out of work until the in-person drinking and dining order is lifted.

Wooten said he and Sarah, a veterinarian, and his kids would be fine, but many of his employees depended on the job to pay their bills. He was busy putting together care packages for his employees even hours before Polis’ announcement. Those packages included toilet paper, he said.

“I don’t think anyone is on the brink of losing their apartment, but I am looking to secure some emergency relief money,” he said. “It’s not like my folks can go get a part-time job somewhere. Everywhere is shut down. It’s not pretty.

“We do have food. We are a restaurant. One thing I can do is make sure my employees eat.”

Heather Bean, owner of Syntax Distillery, had to let her employees go nearly two years ago, when she bought the old (ancient, really) Greeley Elevator building and began to work on remodeling it. Her workers either couldn’t or didn’t want to do the hard construction work. And so she toiled on the improvement projects alone, but for her local-celebrity cat, Gustav,  as she worked to distill enough whiskey, gin, rum and vodka to keep her in business for a few years.

Bean calls herself a dirty hippie, a no-frills do-it-yourselfer who prefers hard work and scraping by to owing money to others, even when on many days a 10-minute job took half the day because she couldn’t find the right tool. As a result, she’s in good shape for the upcoming slow times, whether that’s a recession or the state government ordered shutdown that now will extend to April 30

But she couldn’t help but feel discouraged. It took her 18 months to get the Greeley Elevator into good enough shape to serve customers, and after she opened Thanksgiving weekend, it took her more months to get the word out because of today’s fractured nature of social media and a struggling city newspaper. 

When she opened, it was frantic, a bit like hosting a dinner party the week after you move into a new house. 

“It made you realize all the stuff you hadn’t done yet,” Bean said.

It meant finding hooks to hang art and getting plants by the sunlight and watering them and allowing them places to grow, and designing menus and buying 65 little things at three different stores and hanging the TV on the wall, which, to be honest, she still hasn’t done. 

Lately, though, it all seemed worth it. She really was having fun again. She was even excited to make more product, as the spring was beginning to keep her production room above freezing and even though she has 100 barrels of whiskey in her basement: She hadn’t made anything in at least two years, which helps age her whiskey but isn’t as much fun. 

Now she, like Wooten, was worried about her staff and wondering what to do, as she may or may not stay open to sell bottles. She worried about Gustav, too, as the cat craves company. When she was working hard on the building, Gustav could wander downtown to see his friends. Now all those friends are gone. 

“People were just getting used to coming back here again,” Bean said. “We were just getting our momentum again.”

Home deliveries and haircuts for the homebound

Some downtown businesses remained steadfast in staying open as long as they are allowed. Linda Rae Hill Winter owns Accessories with a Flair! … and Hair, a clothing store and salon, and she said she wasn’t worried about catching the virus. 

“The virus could hurt our business, but I’ve done this for 49 years, so I can handle it,” Winter said, before Polis on Thursday ordered all salons, spas and tattoo parlors to observe the shutdown until April 30. “I just feel for the smaller businesses that are just starting. I’m not worried. I’ll leave that up to the customer.”

Winter said she’s been following all the recommended practices while cutting hair, including washing her hands often, and she sanitized her store. 

She did have one customer who has a compromised immune system call and cancel her appointment, but only after apologizing. 

“I said to not apologize,” Winter said. “The customers will come eventually again if they can’t come right now. There will be better times coming.”

In fact, many places, including restaurants and drinking establishments, hoped to stay open without allowing people to gather. Aunt Helen’s Coffee House was serving drinks to customers, but didn’t allow them to sit, and the Nerd Store had the lights on Tuesday, but turned to its online site for sales. Travis Parry, who opened the comic book, games and quirky gifts store in 2013, said he would bring merchandise outside to waiting customers if they made an online order.

“We may even do deliveries to people who don’t want to leave the house,” Parry said.

Parry also delayed Free Comic Book day and closed his game room, where people gathered to play Magic: The Gathering, Pokemon and other card games on designated nights, until the end of April. He also put used card singles he purchases from customers in a 72-hour quarantine.

“In some ways we are a destination store,” Parry said, “but in the summer we do rely on other businesses a lot more to bring in customers.”

Parry was attempting to cut costs and hoped that his landlord would work with him on rent and utilities, and that he could juggle his employees’ hours.

“They rely on the income from this store,” Parry said. “I’m trying to keep everyone’s hours so they can work at least some.”

Fear may long outlast the virus, he said, and he hoped that the closings only last the month.

“At some point, life does have to return,” he said, “or we face much more dire consequences as a society.”

 Canned beer at the curb

Tuesday afternoon, Scott Davidson, marketing manager for Wiley Roots Brewing Co., was busy updating the brewery’s website to include to-go beer sales for the first time: Customers can select the beer online, come to the brewery and pick it up. 

The virus, then, appears to be ushering in a new online era for some downtown businesses as a way to put off the pain as much as possible. 

“We were building a brand new website, so we’ve neglected the old one for a while,” Davidson said.

Ely Corliss puts a sign on the front door of his Luna’s Tacos and Tequila in downtown Greeley advising patrons the bar and restaurant is closed in order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Corliss, who also owns Moxi Theater, is worried Gov. Jared Polis’ decision to shut down in-person dining and drinking and gatherings of more than 10 people will lead him to close down his businesses permanently. (Valerie Vampola, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wiley’s taproom brought in 60% of their revenue, so that pain will be real, as to-go sales probably will make up, at most, 25% of what they could make. The brewery had to adjust employee hours, for instance.

And yet Davidson felt a little lucky: They have the option to get their product out to liquor stores, which have seen a 25% spike in sales, he said. 

Beer isn’t whiskey. It goes bad, typically in a month, unless it was meant to be aged. 

“Any brewery who relies just on taproom sales will be hurting,” Davidson said. “We will have 30-40% of the (state) breweries not get through this.”

Tower 56 distillery planned to sell bottles of vodka, bourbon, gin and other spirits from its tasting room. Wooten hoped customers would buy Greeley Chophouse and Cranford Cove gift cards online to spread out the direct hit of the virus. WeldWerks canceled its fifth anniversary party that would have taken place this weekend, but it saved all the anniversary glasses, T-shirts and brewery tours for a later date. 

WeldWerks canceled the party before Polis’ declaration and was prepared to take a financial hit. It also increased the number of beers sent to distribution, so you may be able to buy more beer from the popular brewery. Curbside pick-up options and mobile orders, using online apps like Drizly, will be possible. The same was true of Wiley Roots. 

Yet Parry, from the Nerd Store, also said he enjoyed talking to customers who are fellow nerds as much as they are moneymakers, and Bean said bottle sales weren’t nearly as profitable as cocktails crafted at Syntax. She also said she wasn’t sure if she could pay someone to wait for customers, although she would probably be in her building toiling away at projects she put off once she stayed open. Maybe someone could ring the bell if they wanted a bottle, she thought. 

Bianca Fisher, head of the Greeley DDA, said the office spent much of its time last week letting people know the Blarney of the Block event had been canceled. She wasn’t sure, yet, what to do for businesses. 

“There’s no telling how long this will continue and how far-reaching the impacts will be,” she said, “but we will work in the upcoming days and weeks to see how we can respond to those needs.”

When Polis announced the closures, Corliss sat in Luna’s and took the news the best way he knew how, by devouring a taco. 

“It may be the last time I eat in three weeks,” he said as customers shuffled out the door.

He thought, once, that he could take advantage of the virus as the big festivals, like Coachella, canceled: Maybe the bands would need a place to play.

“I thought Colorado would be a different story,” he said. “But it just got worse and worse. But failure is not an option for me.”

It’s a disaster for a business like his to cancel one weekend, and now he was looking at eight in a row. He hoped for tax credits, rent and mortgage deferment and possibly direct government payouts to his staff and his business. He’s also hoping for more gift card sales. In the meantime, he had to lay off all 17 of his part-time employees at the Moxi. 

“This brings a whole new meaning to “Till Death Do Us Taco,” Corliss said and allowed himself his first laugh in a while. 

Over in the corner, the sign carrying the same slogan went from a glowing pink to a dull gray. 

Things you can do:
• Search online for your favorite places — there are many in this article — and buy online, or buy gift cards and redeem them later this summer when the virus shouldn’t be as much of a factor.  Some businesses are offering to-go options, in addition to using services such as NoCo Nosh and DoorDash to make deliveries. Greeley’s Downtown Development Authority has has compiled a list of some of those options. Find them here

Shop local when you can, especially when you’re buying takeout food and drink products. 
Save your money and build a kitty to support your favorite businesses when the doors reopen. 
Obey the pleas of public health officials to stay home, wash your hands and be careful. 
Don’t gather in groups larger than 10, as the closures won’t help if you just gather in locations other than the ones that are closed. 

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