Inside Boulder’s tangled COVID-19 economic web

A view into one Boulder service worker’s experience during COVID-19

By Tatyana Sharpton Apr 3 2020

March’s public health order that mandated a close to all bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters, and casinos and subsequent additional orders affect and highlight the reality of Boulder’s tight economic web.

Everyone’s taking a hit, small businesses, landlords, service workers. The sustainability of all are at stake, as the fundamental mechanics of the local (and national and global) economy are freezing in place.

Boulder County’s largest commercial landlord Stephen Tebo, whose company Tebo Properties owns over 200 properties in and around Boulder, is working with tenants on a case-by-case basis on arrangements to weather the storm as many face drastic reductions in income. “We’re hunkering down and compromising,” Stephen told BLDRfly.

Stephen Tebo. Image: Tebo Properties.

“We have 850 clients and 750 of them have had shut down [due to COVID],” Stephen says. That’s potentially a huge impact on revenue. He says the company is negotiating with its own lenders to pay interest only for a few months.

Businesses such as Arcana Restaurant and sister spot Jungle have furloughed 35 hourly employees. These service workers felt COVID slowdown’s impact almost immediately, and perhaps most deeply, as many have limited savings.

Boulder has over 17,850 service workers; in addition, it has over 1,340 food service managers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many of these are now either furloughed, released or on unemployment.

On the frontlines

Bobby Galluzzi, who worked as a Kid’s Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu coach at Easton Training Center before the virus forced it to freeze operations, held his primary job at Boulder’s comfort cuisine restaurant River and Woods.

Bobby Galluzzi. Image: Rebecca Slaughter.

“For a week or so, everything happened so fast,” said Bobby. “I’d say, the week of March 11– things were still normal. And then by next week everything was going haywire.”

March 17 marked the first day River and Woods officially closed to the public. With Easton’s doors also shut, Bobby suddenly found himself unemployed and joined the ranks of thousands whose incomes vanished with COVID.

The restaurant, located in a historic home on the east end of Pearl Street, previously housed one of Boulder’s first fine dining establishments, John’s Restaurant. For over four decades it stood as a culinary and community landmark and continued to do so even after Chef Daniel Asher and Josh Dinar, who recently earned his black belt in Jiu Jitsu from Easton, took it over and created River and Woods. (Daniel was the culinary director for Denver’s Edible Beats restaurant group before leaving in 2016 to start River and Woods with Josh. Josh is a co-owner of the Boulder’s T|ACO, a co-founder of Boulder’s Restaurant Week, and publisher of DiningOut Magazine.)

Bobby filed for “job-attached” unemployment, which differs from regular unemployment in that it exempts the applicant from looking for other jobs and providing proof of doing so.

Response + action

R&W’s Chef Daniel Asher mini-mart on its opening day.  Image: River and Woods Instagram.

Immediately, the River and Woods owners pivoted to take-and-bake meals. Different from standard carryout, this concept allows people to order from the menu and finish prepping it themselves at home, ensuring a fresher meal. Chef Daniel and Josh are operating a small market in the back of River and Woods as well as one at Tributary Food Hall in Golden.

Since its close, Bobby has volunteered at the restaurant, coming in for hours at a time, and has run some deliveries.

“Someone said, ‘Why would you go volunteer your time at the job? They can’t ask you to do that,’” he says. “I told them, ‘They didn’t.’ I want to look around in our community and see that this is bringing out the best in people more than it’s bringing out the worst.”

R&W’s management had anticipated opening a different restaurant further on Pearl Street Mall’s west end where Bobby was to become Assistant General Manager. That project is temporarily halted and the future, like for many, uncertain.

Life + bills

Bobby (far right) with fellow coaches Alex Yablong and John Combs.

Despite the business freeze, responsibilities persist. A server in Boulder can earn a livable wage at up to $1,000 a week, and seeing the immediate loss of that could crush amid Boulder rent, health insurance, car insurance and a mirage of other fixed life expenses.

“My healthcare is $300 a month,” says Bobby. “[It’s ironic] now that the coronavirus is everywhere, I can’t afford health care at a time I really need it.”

With a roommate contributing an additional amount, monthly rent for himself and his son in a three-bedroom condo off of Baseline comes to $1,400.

“That first week of the 20th, there were days where I’d open my eyes and lay in my bed with the pillow over my face,” said Bobby. “Then three hours later on the same day I’d be like, WOW it’s so beautiful, I’m going to take a hike! I never had time to go on hikes before.”

Bobby just got his Instacart Shopper certification, a service launched in 2012, which assists people with personal grocery shoppers, but hesitates to start picking up hours for fear that an extra $150 a week will negate his unemployment eligibility.

Like many businesses, River and Woods doesn’t have a timeline for opening back up.

He and many other service staff hang in limbo as they wait to see what happens next. For the moment, Bobby survives on his savings and tax refund and continues volunteering his time with River and Woods. He figures he has at least one more month before he needs to consider making bigger changes.

Additional reporting by Paul Hagey