Aurora area restaurants, small businesses brace for ‘ghost town’ closures

March 18th, 2020

Full Sentinel Article here
Alfonso Nunez at La Cueva.
File photo by Gabriel Christus/Aurora Sentinel

AURORA | Aurora restaurant owners and economic development advocates say the novel coronavirus pandemic has already wounded small businesses, threatening permanent closures and layoffs, as a statewide ban on dining in restaurants rolls out.

Gov. Jared Polis said it was critical that the environment in bars and restaurants be eliminated because allows for easy and widespread virus transmission. He said the decision to impose the restrictions was difficult knowing that it will hurt thousands of restaurants and tens of thousands of restaurant workers and owners.

In the end, Polis said, the decision will help abbreviate the crisis and ultimately get restaurants reopened sooner.

Hibachi Grill closed March 17 until at least March 27 because of the new coronavirus crisis. PHOTO BY PHILIP B. POSTON/Sentinel Colorado

The novel coronavirus pandemic and “social distancing” has already slashed business for La Cueva, a Mexican restaurant near the intersection of Dayton Street and East Colfax Avenue serving Aurora for about 45 years. Owner Alfonso Nunez’s parents opened the Aurora icon in 1974, weathering stock market crashes and 9/11.

But Nunez said it’s possible the restaurant won’t survive this crisis.

“It’s gonna be like a domino effect,” he said Monday. “Quite frankly, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to recover from this.”

He said business started taking a big hit a week ago. Since then, he’s had to reduce staff hours. But the bills and invoices keep coming, Nunez said, while the restaurant became emptier. He expected a dining ban in place hours before Polis issued his order.

“Of course it’s affecting us all,” he said of local businesses. “I don’t know if anyone is going to recover from this.”

The story is similar for many Aurora businesses, said Aurora Chamber of Commerce President Kevin Hougen. He compared this crisis to the stock market crash of 1987, remembering employees carrying cardboard boxes filled with desk items after they’d been let go.

“I’m really worried about the number of people that might be laid off,” he said.

Hougen said restaurant and hospitality services have been hardest-hit so far, but he expected the retail sector to see cuts and limitations next.

Havana Street, a main center of commerce and major thoroughfare, has become a “ghost town,” said Garrett Walls, President of the On Havana Street business improvement district.

He said three Havana Street businesses announced temporary closures today, including Bicycle Village. The bike retailer, near the intersection of East Yale Avenue, had set up a giant tent filled with bikes for its annual sale. That sale event is now canceled, Walls said, noting that even traffic is scant on South Havana Street.

Walls said he also leads Western Centers LLC, an Aurora-based landlord company leasing spaces to small businesses.

He said he’s hearing fears that their tenants won’t be able to pay rent. Western Centers is mulling over flexible rent-payment options for tenants, he said, and he’s connecting with other landlords to encourage rent forgiveness programs.

After imposing a ban on in-person dining and public gatherings above 10 people, Polis said the state would get through the mounting crisis. He said state unemployment insurance could also be used to supplement the paychecks of workers that are not laid off, but do see work hours cut.

“There will be a time when we want to celebrate those small businesses again,” Polis said. “….But I think you all know… that day is not today, it is not tomorrow, it is not likely to be next week or the week after.”