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Editor’s note: This story has been updated with Saturday’s executive orders by President Donald Trump and comments from Senate candidate and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, warned this week that Congress “cannot abdicate their responsibility of taking care of our citizens and our businesses” by failing to pass another economic rescue package before going on August recess Friday.
“Whether or not they will, I don’t know, because of all the factors around elections and with everything hyper-politicized,” Romer told RealVail.com this week. “I’m optimistic enough to hope that across the aisle they understand that it needs to happen.”
Romer heads the valley-wide chamber of commerce and has been hearing from members just how dire the situation is becoming in Eagle County.
“The downstream impacts from mental health to food insecurity to housing insecurity that would be caused by them not getting this done would be terrifying to me — the prospects of what it would mean to Eagle County and the entire country if Congress doesn’t act,” Romer said.
On Saturday, Aug. 8, President Donald Trump signed four limited executive orders meant to ease some of the economic suffering — including one that is unfunded and cuts federal unemployment benefits to $300 a week (requiring cash-strapped states to pay an additional $100 a week) — but critics quickly called out the actions as ineffective and counterproductive to achieving a more robust package in Congress.
U.S. Senate candidate and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper released a statement Monday calling out Sen. Cory Gardner for campaigning in Colorado instead of prioritizing the relief-bill negotiations in Washington.
“It’s been almost three months since the House passed the HEROES act, but Mitch McConnell and Sen. Gardner have refused to take action, and the President is only adding to the confusion,” Hickenlooper said. “Tens of thousands of Coloradans don’t have the money to pay the rent, put food on the table, and pay the bills, and nothing the President has done is going to change that this week. Sen. Gardner should be working around the clock to address this crisis and get real help to the people who need it most.”
The New York Times on Wednesday reported lawmakers were nowhere near a deal, quoting White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows saying, “We continue to be trillions of dollars apart in terms of what Democrats and Republicans hopefully will ultimately compromise on. Is Friday a drop-dead date? No. But my optimism continues to diminish the closer we get to Friday and certainly falls off the cliff exponentially after Friday.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, whose Democrat-controlled lower chamber passed the $3 trillion HEROES Act in May, said, “I feel optimistic that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But how long that tunnel is remains to be seen.”
Republicans late last week countered with a $1 trillion package that cut the $600-a-week expanded unemployment benefit that expired on Friday.
Romer said many of his members, especially in the restaurant and retail sectors, are now worried about making it to December as Eagle County grapples with a dramatically diminished tourism industry devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the local economy in March. Businesses that made it through the spring using cash on hand or Paycheck Protection Program [PPP] loans and maybe saw a little better than expected summer are facing a brutal fall.
“There’s some uncertainty, but there’s optimism that there’ll be some cashflow in December and through the winter and they’ll be able to pay those fixed expenses,” Romer said. “But people are really worried about getting to December. It was the same place we were in in March. Everyone was trying to get to June, and now that has shifted and everyone is trying to get to December.”
In Eagle County, 80% of the local businesses have less than 10 employees, and 90% have less than 20 employees. The next congressional bailout program needs to put the focus there.
“We’re driven by small business,” Romer said. “So how do we focus on the true small business and not the bigger companies that probably at some level still need some level of support — the big hotel companies are the airlines — but we need to find a program that works for the main street USA mom and pop operations.”
And that means some added flexibility in any new PPP loans, which were approved in the CARES Act in March but focused on payroll.
“There’s a lot of businesses here in Eagle County whose fixed expenses outside of payroll are equal to or more than their payroll costs,” Romer said. “Their rent and their purchases, their supply, their inventory — being able to use a federal program to be able to handle those expenses is maybe different than a traditional metropolitan area where their costs are more focused on payroll. So a PPP program with more flexibility.”
Romer said his members are telling him Congress should also continue the expanded unemployment benefit.
“People generally think it’s a good idea. There was a Yale study that came out … that said there is zero correlation between the federal unemployment stipend and whether or not people went back to work,” Romer said. “We need to figure that out … just from a human standpoint. There’s general support for that, but there’s overwhelming support to figure out another package of PPP relief with either low cost loans, grants — the PPP with expanded eligibility and flexibility.”
President Donald Trump, whose administration has taken several stances counter even to the positions of the Republican-controlled Senate, is adamantly opposed to the $900 billion in the HEROES Act to prop up cratering state and local governments.
“We have some states and cities — you know them all — they’ve been very poorly run over the years,” Trump said, according to the Times. “We’re not going to go along with that.”
But Romer said many businesses in Eagle County support those services.
“A lot of the people that I talked to and a lot of the lobbying that we’ve done and the advocacy that we’ve done with our federal elected officials is to support the counties and cities and not just people like the CARES Act did, but to have direct funding for counties and cities and schools,” Romer said.
“There is general support that those entities are providing essential services and need to continue to provide essential services and maybe even funding for them to do their own small business grants that can be localized at a county or a town level,” Romer added. “That would be something that I think there’s general support for, for sure.”
The Vail Valley Partnership in March joined four other chamber associations in starting the Save Small Businesses Association that now has nearly 120 chamber members across the country that helped craft the Small Business Comeback Act – one of numerous proposals being considered for inclusion in the next economic recovery package.
“We joined forces with the America Recovery Fund and we were one of five groups to start that effort,” Romer said. “It started around business interruption insurance in March and we changed and pivoted the effort.”
But regardless of which proposals make it through to the finish line, Romer is adamant that Congress must act soon.