COLORADO — Almost 400,000 sick. More than 5,000 deaths. School closures, business closures and an unemployment rate that, at one point, topped 11%. All Colorado COVID-19 facts and figures known far too well by local officials in cities and towns throughout the state.
Yet, even in such challenging times, many of Colorado’s small towns and cities have responded in pro-active, creative, community driven ways, some of which were highlighted in the Colorado Municipal League’s recently released 2021 State of Our Cities and Towns Report.
One of those featured was the Western Slope town of Fruita with a population of a little more than 13,000 people.
Soon after the pandemic set in, the city of Fruita set its focus on the health of its citizens, partnering with Slate Communications to come up with the positive PR campaign “Be Well, Be Fruita”. The city also took more concrete steps, including repurposing temporary spaces on public roads to allow for outdoor dining and funding regular cleaning. The city used city funds to build outdoor classrooms for each of the local school district’s six public schools, which made appropriately distanced in-person learning possible. Early on in the pandemic, the city enabled small businesses to apply for grant funding to help prevent closures and recently committed to providing funding to a local food bank to help community members in need.
Homelessness was a significantly growing concern in a number of cities and towns throughout the state before the pandemic hit Colorado, but that concern became exponentially more pressing when Gov. Polis issued the statewide mandate for Coloradoans to stay-at-home on March 26, 2020.
Fortunately, a collaborative pro-active response team from the City of Boulder, the City of Longmont, and Boulder County already had one specific group of vulnerable residents on their mind -- unhoused individuals – and the team was prepared. One week before the shutdown, they opened a COVID-19 Recovery Center (CRC) to serve homeless individuals from Boulder and Longmont.
In Rifle, a town with a population around 10,000, the Rifle Humanity Restoration Crew took a more feel-good approach, adopting the motto “Reconnecting People One Wave At A Time”. Their mission: “to spread kindness, friendliness and get people to acknowledge one another - even as they stay at a safe distance and behind masks.” Signs and buttons featuring a happy face and positive messages were posted throughout town. Crew members of the crew and all city employees did their part, as well, leading by example.
The City of Englewood set support of local businesses as a top priority. Just three days after Polis’ stay-at-home order which restricted and, in many cases, closed business operations, the city re-geared its economic development resources with a focus on providing COVID-19 relief to small businesses, including committing $200,000 from the city’s budget to support COVID-19 business initiatives.
When funding from the CARES Act became available, 430 grants totaling $1,011,950 in funds were awarded to Englewood businesses. The city of Englewood also launched eight grants, including small business and support recovery funding for businesses with 25 or fewer employees; re-opening and marketing grants to assist with those efforts as well as COVID-19 signage, floor graphics and PPE; the Home Business Interruption grant for Englewood residents operating a home business; Outdoor Heater and Temporary Shelter Grant for restaurants, bars and gyms to accommodate outside dining or fitness; and Third-Party Delivery Fee Grant to reimburse businesses that utility a third party delivery service.
These are a few of the handful of cities and towns showcased as stories in the annual report. The list is not inclusive. Residents of Alamosa have seen efforts enacted by the City of Alamosa, as well. But the takeaway is clear: despite a pandemic that impacted cities and towns in ways that are greatly varied with some areas faring better than others, one common thread running through the narrative is that, despite unprecedented and often unpredicted challenges, the commitment of Colorado municipalities to continue to serve their communities is as strong as ever.