Coronavirus

COVID-19: Scenes From Colorado's Great Depression 2.0

Downtown Georgetown on a recent Sunday afternoon. The boarded-up restaurant to the right was damaged in a fire.
Downtown Georgetown on a recent Sunday afternoon. The boarded-up restaurant to the right was damaged in a fire. Photo by Michael Roberts
The COVID-19 crisis in Colorado has largely been viewed through a Denver-centric lens. But the economic devastation in other parts of the state has been just as profound, if not more so.

As evidenced by visits to Greeley, in the northern part of the state, and the mountain communities of Georgetown and Idaho Springs this past weekend, May 30 and May 31, bouncing back after the extended closure of businesses during the stay-at-home order will be a long and painful process.

Greeley is home to JBS, the slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant that has become one of Colorado's most devastating outbreak sites.

A June 3 report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lists 273 positive cases among JBS staffers and six deaths. In addition, the JBS corporate office has tallied five positive cases and one death.


click to enlarge Clockwise from upper left: A billboard on the road to the JBS plant; cattle trucks lined up at the plant entrance; the JBS occupational health office; employees lined up to receive what appears to be the gift of meat. - PHOTOS BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Clockwise from upper left: A billboard on the road to the JBS plant; cattle trucks lined up at the plant entrance; the JBS occupational health office; employees lined up to receive what appears to be the gift of meat.
Photos by Michael Roberts
Jokes about the beef industry creating Greeley's foul aroma are no laughing matter directly outside the facility. The stench is so strong that it's practically visible — or would be if your eyes weren't watering so much.

Local residents stress that this smell translates to money, and indeed, the operation was bustling on May 30, with ten or more cattle trucks lined up outside the main gates, waiting to bring cows inside to their final reward, as it were.

JBS has been criticized for allegedly being slow to adequately protect its employees from the disease, but management seems to be taking it seriously at this point, at least judging by what was happening outside, in public view. All the employees we saw were wearing masks, with a single exception — a man on break who stood apart from the rest of his colleagues.

click to enlarge A street in downtown Greeley was all but deserted on a recent Saturday afternoon. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
A street in downtown Greeley was all but deserted on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Photo by Michael Roberts
At the time we visited, workers were lined up outside, waiting to collect large boxes as they headed toward the parking lot. Presumably, they were being given slabs of meat as a lovely parting gift for their labors that day.


This activity stood in stark contrast to the quiet in downtown Greeley.

The town has created a quaint pedestrian mall near historic Lincoln Park, which is lined with inviting shops of all sorts, including Lincoln Park Emporium, one of the best antique stores in this part of the state. But this afternoon, the streets were practically deserted, and traffic was so light that crossing from side to side without looking both ways was a snap.

click to enlarge The few customers at Greeley's Rio Grande restaurant constituted a crowd last Saturday. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The few customers at Greeley's Rio Grande restaurant constituted a crowd last Saturday.
Photo by Michael Roberts
A handful of diners were eating outside at the Rio Grande restaurant, whose staff was appropriately masked. Not that crowding was a problem. Social distancing happened naturally, thanks to the extremely modest amount of business.

The Greeley Mall was also ghostly, since its two main anchors, a movie theater and a J.C. Penney department store, were closed (the Penney's shutdown will be permanent, according to an announcement this week). The major open enterprise was an At Home store with a scattering of cars outside, most of which likely belonged to employees.

Other businesses in the more suburban parts of Greeley were busier, including a Home Depot and assorted grocery stores. But the number of patrons they attracted suggested an above-average weekday as opposed to the throngs associated with weekend shopping prior to the pandemic.

click to enlarge The Georgetown tourism office was still closed last Sunday and appears to have been frozen in time. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The Georgetown tourism office was still closed last Sunday and appears to have been frozen in time.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Still, this level of commerce qualified as thrilling in comparison with what was happening, or not happening, in Georgetown on the afternoon of May 31. At this time of year, the charming town is typically jammed with tourists from around the country. Instead, the main street looked like a long-forgotten movie set with no director on hand to call "Action!"

The other pedestrians during the time we walked around could be counted on one hand. As a result, many shop owners had apparently decided that opening their doors wasn't worth the trouble — and that made sense, given the dearth of browsers at the 30 percent or so of the stores on the street that were open.

Adding to the impression that time had stopped in Georgetown mid-March was the sign on the closed community center announcing that it would open in the springtime.

Looks like the seasons won't be changing there for a while.

click to enlarge Last Sunday, downtown Idaho Springs showed some welcome signs of life. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Last Sunday, downtown Idaho Springs showed some welcome signs of life.
Photo by Michael Roberts
The sadness hanging over Georgetown wasn't quite as oppressive in downtown Idaho Springs, where a pair of popular restaurants, Beau Jo's and Tommyknocker Brewery, both had small lines of customers outside (and at least six feet apart) waiting for a table. Inside, the eateries seemed to be sticking to the state order calling for 50 percent capacity.

Elsewhere in the town, most stores were open and some actually had customers inside or stopping to look in their windows. Their numbers were far lower than they would have been on an average day in late May when the weather was gorgeous and the highways were wide open. But at least they seemed to be doing more than collecting spider webs.

During Colorado's Great Depression 2.0, that qualifies as a good day.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts