Cannabis Business Not Immune to Coronavirus

People enjoy a community joint at the 2019 420 festival. Will they be able to do the same this year?
Jacqueline Collins
People enjoy a community joint at the 2019 420 festival. Will they be able to do the same this year?
Virtually every part of the economy has been affected by efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus, and that includes the legal cannabis industry. Marijuana and hemp conferences in Colorado that had been scheduled for the spring are postponing or canceling altogether, while pot-friendly hospitality establishments are dealing with cancellations and nonstop efforts to sanitize.

Business owners and travelers have been scrambling to respond to daily developments, leaving event organizers "with loads of uncertainty," according to Philip Wolf, CEO of Denver's annual Cannabis Wedding Expo. Originally scheduled for April 5 in Lakewood, the expo was postponed until October 25 after Wolf spoke with vendors, would-be attendees and government officials. He's also pushed back a Cannabis Wedding Expo in Las Vegas from March to October.

"Last week, I didn't think there was any way I'd reschedule it, because of our showcase being more of a centralized focus instead of a focus on out-of-state attendees," Wolf recalls. In fact, earlier this week he was  preparing a statement on the expo's sanitary precautions, assuming the event was a go.

"We were paying attention to the situation and taking cautionary steps, but over the weekend more cases started coming online. The cities and states weren't as prepared to contain this as we'd hoped them to be," he says. "By about noon on Tuesday, we decided to let our vendors know we were going to pull the plug."

The Cannabis Wedding Expo postponement followed a similar decision by organizers of the NoCo Hemp Expo, a hemp-industry trade show that had been expected to draw upwards of 20,000 people to Denver later this month. On March 9, however, they pushed the conference back to August. On March 12, organizers of Hempfest Colorado, a two-day hemp and CBD conference scheduled for April 10 and April 11 in Weld County, announced that the event would be canceled altogether.

People beyond event organizers are hurt by the scrapped plans, Wolf notes: "A lot of our service vendors in the cannabis industry — the cannabis chefs and budtending bars — summertime is very big for them in terms of working weddings and finding new clients. Not being able to drum up business right now for the future, with everyone being in uncertainty, it's going to hit those companies hard. I think we're going to start seeing a trickle- down effect."

While cannabis event organizers are dealing with one or a few major blows, marijuana hospitality businesses are trying to stave off death by a thousand cuts. Cancellations or requests to delay tours and classes are becoming more common by the day for Colorado Cannabis Tours, a marijuana tourism company that offers private pot-friendly travel, art classes and other activities. Founder Michael Eymer says that the requests ramped up over the week, and he's now making changes to his business operations in an effort to stay open during the scare.

Eymer has scaled back the capacity of classes and tours by 30 to 50 percent to allow more space between patrons, he says, and he's sanitizing vehicles and class areas between each session. Both employees and guests must now sign waivers stating that they haven't experienced any cold or flu symptoms or come into contact with anyone who has over the last 48 hours.

"If someone says they have allergies, we'll allow them to take a temperature check with non-contact temperature readers," he says. "I envision more businesses will be requiring temperature checks before allowing people to enter any public space."

Eymer operates similar businesses in several other cities, including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. While Denver tours are suffering largely because of out-of-staters' canceled traveled plans, his Puff, Pass and Paint classes in the larger cities are losing people because of coronavirus worries. "We had a larger amount of sick calls than we've ever seen during a recent Puff, Pass and Paint class," he says. "A wave of them have come in over the past week."

Even though both Mayor Michael Hancock and Governor Jared Polis have declared states of emergency, Eymer thinks that smaller events and businesses like his may be able to scale back and survive. But larger events, including those set for April 20 to mark the 4/20 holiday, could be at risk.

Organizers of the FlyHi 420 Festival, an annual marijuana celebration and free concert expected to draw 30,000 to 50,000 people to Civic Center Park on April 20, have not responded to requests for comment about the status of their event. So far, no news news: The Denver Department of Parks and Recreation doesn't issue official permits until a week before the event is scheduled to take place, and FlyHi has a tendency to wait until the last minute to announce full details.

The action could move to smaller activities that day. "I'm very bearish on how 4/20 will work this year, but again, that will be up to the government," Eymer predicts. "I don't see big events happening on 4/20; I really don't. Denver has already been scaling back as the years go by."

For dispensaries, the frontline of the marijuana industry, it's largely been business as usual during the virus scare. On March 12, employees at a Higher Grade dispensary reported seeing about the same level of business as usual, with no panic bulk-buying, while other pot shops around town continue sending e-mail and text-message blasts about current deals and new strains. In one of its texts, Good Chemistry also detailed the dispensary chain's efforts to keep its products and stores sanitized.

"We've noticed a little less customers, but that can be hard to tell. Sometimes before holidays and the deals that come with them, there will be slow weeks," explains Rita Tsalyuk, co-owner of Yuma Way dispensaries. "It's hard to tell whether it's coronavirus or St. Patrick's Day."