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Illustration by The Heads of State

9 Lessons From Our Bizarre Pandemic Year

From our healthcare system to doomscrolling, here are some of the tough lessons Coloradans learned since the novel coronavirus showed up last year and how they’ll affect how our state operates moving forward.

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It’s been about a year since the novel coronavirus showed up in Colorado. In that time, the insidious particle has taught us many things. Some concepts weren’t easy to learn. Others were so elementary we probably could’ve (should’ve) predicted them. But they’ll all affect how our state operates moving forward.


Lesson 1: Our Health Systems Were Woefully Unprepared To Handle a Pandemic

Three waves, more than 20 million cases, and 350,000-plus deaths as of early January: By any metric, COVID-19 got the best of America. And Colorado had 341,250 cases and nearly 4,934 deaths. How did it all go so wrong? Dr. John Hammer, an infectious disease specialist and chair of medicine at Rose Medical Center, breaks down some of the most damaging missteps.

5280: We had the influenza pandemic in 1918 and other recent scares, including H1N1 in 2009. Were there not systems in place based on those experiences?
Dr. John Hammer: We were fairly well prepared for an influenza outbreak after our experience in 2009 with H1N1. Our health departments developed some idea of how to test and trace something like that. At the beginning, coronavirus was more difficult to trace, though. The biggest problem we had was not being able to actively test all people. We were certainly hamstrung by that at the local level. Both the federal government and local jurisdictions could’ve worked to get testing in place in February, which would have minimized the impact of the pandemic. Ultimately, though, disaster response starts with the federal government. At that level they should’ve had stockpiles to respond quickly and the ability to leverage debt and mobilize personnel and technologies that states simply don’t have.

Photo courtesy of Dan Mager, Rose Medical Center

To what do you ascribe the Great Mask Debate?
Initially, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance was predicated on contact transmission. We were mostly talking about things like touching a contaminated doorknob and then touching your mouth. I think in retrospect, without good knowledge of how the virus was transmitted, it would’ve been good to focus on both contact and airborne droplet transmission from the start. [From the beginning of this pandemic] we got mixed messaging from the federal government, and that made a lot of people feel like they didn’t need to comply—and that has remained a problem throughout.

How long do you think we’re going to be dealing with this awful disease?
Many hurdles still remain in getting the vaccines to the at-risk populations who need them the most. Also, keep in mind that the primary endpoints in the studies of these vaccines have been prevention of serious illness, not the prevention of infection or of transmission. Further studies will be needed to see if the inoculations can keep us from passing the disease to one another. Masking, distancing, and hand hygiene will remain critically important as ways to prevent transmission and illness for some time.


Lesson 2: We Realized That Health Care Personnel Aren’t the Only Essential Workers

Illustration by The Heads of State

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When stay-at-home orders hit in late March 2020, many people just shifted business meetings to Zoom. But certain segments of the workforce had to continue showing up in person for jobs that keep society running. While health care pros are at the top of that list, we all had a blind spot when it came to recognizing other frontline heroes. With that in mind, we asked a few other essential workers to explain why their jobs are important—both during a pandemic and moving forward.

“I often worked the door, making sure people were covered [with masks]. Oh boy, did I get plenty of attitude. The holidays were the most intense time, though. The staff is typically working like crazy to get ready. Add in more people buying groceries because they couldn’t go out to restaurants anymore, and it became insane. There were all sorts of lines, and we were struggling to keep things in stock. You could tell everyone was on edge.”—Erica Vasile, assistant manager, Marczyk Fine Foods

“Everyone is usually generous on the buses, helping people out and such. The vibe became, Don’t sit next to me, don’t touch me, did you really just cough or sneeze? The hardest part for me, though, was not seeing regular elderly passengers. Some I would take for things like cancer treatments. I haven’t seen some of them for months. You wonder if they’ve survived. It breaks your heart.”—Antwuan Anderson, RTD bus driver

“We were considered an essential facility for our company, so we never closed. Most of the kids still coming had parents who were essential workers. Early childhood care is always underappreciated. I hope this helped people see how we provide stability for so many families every day.”—Samantha Hiltz, director, Parker KinderCare Learning Center

“Part of my job is to go collect bodies when people pass away. We used to go in, try to be warm, and shake everyone’s hand. Now…it feels so standoffish. We’ve been trying to keep the whole process as normal as possible, though. We are doing small services for people, and we have an option for a professional videography company that helps more people see a service live. You don’t want to put people in the ground and say, That’s it. You want to help people properly grieve.”—JaCobe Payne, location manager, Horan & McConaty funeral home


Lesson 3: The Pandemic May Force Us To Finally Address Racial Inequity in Health Care

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At one point in May, more than half the people with COVID-19 in Colorado hospitals were Latino. During the summer, around one in 10 hospitalized patients were Black, even though the racial group makes up just 4.6 percent of the state’s population. In early December, Native American populations were reporting around 60 cases per 100,000, compared to 38 cases per 100,000 for white Coloradans. “Those numbers being publicized so much have made the pandemic the most effective demonstration of health disparities I can remember,” says Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health.

Burman hopes that means it will be a tipping point. In March, demographic breakdowns of cases and hospitalizations weren’t available. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment decided to release info for cases in April and for hospitalizations in August, so more resources could be delivered to disproportionately affected communities. Burman also says that Denver’s new Racial Equity Council has helped hospitals and governments adjust policies to provide more care for at-risk populations. He believes bigger solutions, however, like universal health care and more funding for public health departments, are what will ultimately lessen disparities. “Hopefully,” he says, “we’ve realized we’re all vulnerable because we’ve left a significant portion of people so vulnerable.”


Lesson 4: It’s Going To Take Serious Effort—and Maybe Some Star Power—To Save Our Cultural Institutions

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Back in 2010, Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites were just two guys trying to get a gig. The New Jersey transplants played the Meadowlark’s open-mic night in north Denver every Tuesday evening. And they got some breaks opening for acts at independent venues like the Hi-Dive on South Broadway.

Two years later, after having officially formed the Lumineers, the pair released a single (“Ho Hey”) that would catapult them to international stardom. Fraites is skeptical any of that would’ve been possible without having the opportunity to hone their skills on Denver’s smaller stages. “Without those places,” Fraites says, “the Lumineers might not be in the same realm.”

Most of the stages Fraites has fond memories of have been shuttered for months. With state restrictions that limit indoor capacities to 50 and outdoor crowds to 75, many club owners have stayed closed and are worried they may never be able to open again. Of course, this isn’t just a Denver or Colorado problem: The National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) reported this fall that 90 percent of the nearly 2,000 independent venues the organization represents nationwide may be forced to permanently close without further assistance from the federal government. When Schultz and Fraites heard that bad news, they thought about all the venues that helped launch their careers.

Doug Greene, Boulder Theater owner, and Cheryl Liguori, CEO at Z2 Entertainment. Photo courtesy of Lisa Siciliano

To help out, the duo posted on social media and did interviews with news outlets, urging music fans to lobby Congress to pass the Restart Act, a bill drafted by Colorado Senator Michael Bennet and Indiana Senator Todd Young that would provide loans to some of the country’s hardest-hit businesses, including performance spaces. To help raise money for struggling venues, the Lumineers also participated in the Save Our Stages virtual concert, put on by NIVA, with other big-name acts like Denver’s Nathaniel Rateliff. Furthermore, they regularly held their own livestream shows during which they solicited donations for NIVA.

Despite bipartisan support, Congress had yet to pass the Restart Act at press time. But David Weingarden, vice president of concerts and events at Z2 Entertainment, which operates a number of Colorado venues, says support from these artists has helped keep the issue at the forefront of people’s minds. “They’ve been incredibly generous with their time and energy,” Weingarden says. “Hopefully it helps us see some fans again in the coming months.”

You Don’t Have To Be a Rock Star To Help Local Businesses Survive

How your donations can make a difference.

If You Want To Save…Music Venues
Z2 Entertainment’s David Weingarden advises visiting saveourstages.com, where you can donate to the NIVA Emergency Relief Fund. You can also send money straight to your favorite venue (many have funds set up) or buy concert tickets for 2021, which helps provide a much-needed influx of cash right now.

If You Want To Save…Restaurants
Along with takeout and delivery (reminder: order directly from the restaurant), Laura Shunk, communication director at the Colorado Restaurant Association, suggests supporting the virtual classes and events many restaurants have started, buying pantry items from local eateries, and asking your elected officials to provide support for restaurants.

If You Want To Save…Artists and Galleries
“The best way to support local artists and galleries is to involve yourself in the process of art collecting,” says Christine Serr, owner of Denver’s Abend Gallery. She suggests denverart.org as a great starting point. The site, run by the Denver Art Dealers Association, features a dedicated list of local galleries selling handmade, original works.


Lesson 5: Some of Us Aren’t Very Good at Following the Rules

Photo courtesy of Getty Images

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Many of us did do our parts—stayed home, wore masks, missed holiday celebrations—to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, there were folks who unabashedly ignored regulations. Here, we bestow anti-awards for the most egregious examples.

The Biggest Missed Postponement:
Remember that week in March when most of us started to take this coronavirus thing seriously? The one during which (dear God, no!) Tom Hanks got sick? Well, that Friday night, thousands of people still packed into what was then called the Pepsi Center for a Post Malone concert that may have been the last large enclosed gathering in the nation before shutdowns ensued. Social media exploded with videos mercilessly shaming both Malone and attendees. Blake Shelton made sure to cancel his show, scheduled there for the next evening.

The Worst Mother’s Day Present:
Everyone kind of kept their cool during the first holiday affected by the pandemic: Easter. But by the time Mother’s Day rolled around in early May, most of the Denver area had been under stay-at-home orders for what felt like a lifetime. (Little did we know, eh?) Enter C&C Coffee and Kitchen, a Castle Rock restaurant that opened its doors to a very large, mostly maskless crowd for Mother’s Day brunch, despite health orders limiting restaurants to takeout and delivery. Governor Jared Polis suspended the eatery’s business license for 30 days. The restaurant closed for good in July.

The Largest Party Foul We All Knew Would Happen:
University of Colorado Boulder frat bros were perhaps bound to start throwing superspreader ragers. After all, nothing says infectious fun like passing around a Solo cup full of Coors and COVID-19. That’s exactly what happened when five Boulder fraternities were fined a combined $10,000 by the university for ignoring Boulder County ordinances and hosting large, booze-infused gatherings within weeks of returning to school in August. By mid-September, cases on campus spiked and university officials asked students to only leave their dorms and homes for class, food, and work.

The Most Ironic Rally To Promote Lawsuits That Got Sued Itself:
In September, thousands attended a “Stop the COVID Chaos” rally at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison to promote two lawsuits—one by the racetrack against Jefferson County for health regulations on businesses and another by state Representative Patrick Neville, the House minority leader, against Polis’ mask mandate. Two days after the event, Jefferson County Public Health sued Bandimere for violating public health orders; a judge ruled the track must comply with local health orders moving forward.


Lesson 6: Doomscrolling Isn’t Healthy

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

These days, my existential spirals usually begin with the same push notification, which comes every Sunday at 9 a.m. That’s when Big Brother’s trusty spying device (I mean, my iPhone) informs me that I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at a tiny screen over the previous seven days: “You looked at Twitter for seven hours this week.” How? And, more important, why? To help address my worrisome compulsion to doomscroll—or ceaselessly peruse social media in a desperate bid to find that one tweet that will help me comprehend the absolute mess that is modern society—I reached out to CJ Bathgate, a clinical psychologist at National Jewish Health. “It’s hard because technology is the thing that is keeping us connected right now,” Bathgate says. “The best thing you can do is pick a couple of small ways to alter your habits.” Here are three suggestions she offered for how to avoid the endless scrolling.


Lesson 7: Being Stuck at Home Has Changed the Way We Spend Money—and That Can Be a Good Thing

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Sixty-four percent of Americans adjusted the way they spent money during the pandemic, according to a September study from Bank of America. While many people saw their incomes decrease during that time, the changes in expenditures actually helped a lot of households save more money than usual. To show you how, we compared finances from August 2019 and August 2020 that we created using average incomes and expenses taken from the Council for Community and Economic Research and numbeo.com—along with anecdotal evidence that suggests how Denverites are living—for a family of four (let’s call them the Smiths) residing in the Mile High City.

August 2019

Monthly Income: $7,136.75
Expenses: $6,509.91
Groceries: $1,297.53
Car and gas: $504.57
Utilities, including internet: $215.88
*Clothing: $109.86
Mortgage/rent: $1,970.89
*Gym membership: $240.87
Food at restaurants: $712.79
Entertainment: $202.89
Health care: $308.33
Other goods and services, including electronics and digital subscriptions: $293.30
Donations: $270
*Travel: $383

*Clothing
This money helped buy little Jonny Smith some new pants and Nikes before heading back to school. In 2020, a similar amount was used to buy Mom some sweatpants and slippers for working from home.

*Gym membership
Much to Mr. Smith’s chagrin—he loves the sauna at the athletic club—the family ditched its gym memberships partway through 2020.

*Travel
The Smiths went to Disneyland Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument in 2019 but canceled a 2020 trip to Lake Tahoe. They went camping a few times, but travel expenses were way down.

August 2020

Monthly Income: $6,779.92
*Expenses: $6,030.37
Groceries: $1,375.53, up 6%
Car and gas: $252.03, down 50%
*Utilities, including internet: $265.88, up 23%
Clothing: $109.86
Mortgage/rent: $1,970.89
*Food from restaurants: $700.79, down 2%
Entertainment: $158.26, down 21%
Health care: $308.83
Other goods and services, including electronics and digital subscriptions: $293.30
Donations: $400, up 40%
*Pets: $100, up 100%
Travel: $100, down 73%

*Expenses
Despite a five percent decrease in income due to salary cuts, the Smiths actually saved more money in 2020. They weren’t the only ones: Both the Bank of America survey and an August Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs poll estimated roughly 50 percent of Americans had saved more money since the outbreak began. The AP sample also suggested that as many as 26 percent of people had paid down debts faster than normal during the pandemic.

*Utilities, including internet
Jonny and his big sis, Kendra, both used the internet for remote learning. And Mr. Smith was always on Zoom meetings, so he decided to pay for additional internet bandwidth.

*Food from restaurants
The Smiths didn’t dine out as much as in 2019, but they still got food delivered. Extra fees on Grubhub meant the family spent near the same amount on food from restaurants in 2020.

*Pets
Like thousands of other Coloradans, the Smiths adopted a dog during the pandemic. They’ll spend about $1,200 per year on the pup.


Lesson 8: For Better or Worse, We’ve Had To Alter the Way We Use Physical Spaces

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Ever since March, the notion of space has become an outsize part of our lives. Most people now have a keen sense of just how far six feet is. Some of us know how frustrating it is to feel like we have no room to ourselves. Others understand that this virus has put too much distance between us and those we love. Everyone, however, has likely experienced the seismic shift in the way we use shared areas, from our homes to our office buildings to our parks. Although it’s easy to believe nothing good can come from this pandemic, we took a look at the upsides—OK, and downsides—to the ways we’re using spaces now and how we might continue to in the future.

Commercial Office Space

At the end of October, the total vacancy rate for office space in the Denver area was around 20 percent, according to a report from real estate firm CBRE Group. The previous high was 15 percent in 2012.
Upside: Companies may forego expensive rents and put profits toward employee salaries and benefits.
Downside: When commercial real estate values fall, local governments make less money from taxes on such properties, creating shortfalls for things like public schools.

Brick-And-Mortar Retail Shops

According to CBRE, Denver-area businesses vacated more than 662,000 square feet of retail space during the first nine months of the pandemic.
Upside: Businesses might pivot to finding creative ways to meet customers where they are (mostly online), which could ever-so-slightly slow Amazon’s takeover of the world.
Downside: Vibrant areas, like Tennyson Street, are losing character as local businesses shutter and corporate chains move in.

State Parks

A record number of people visited state parks in 2020, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW). In July alone, a million more people headed to the outdoor recreation areas than in July 2019.
Upside: After opening Fishers Peak State Park (the state’s newest such park) in October, CPW created an online portal where the public can suggest land in Colorado where it should build another state park.
Downside: A continued influx of people is hastening the degradation of our beautiful landscapes and ecosystems.

Single-Family Homes

Matt Leprino, a spokesperson for the Colorado Association of Realtors, says the 2020 real estate market was dominated by people seeking out more room: “Everyone realized they needed somewhere to put that new Peloton.”
Upside: All-time low interest rates—hello, 2.875 percent!—are helping people get a little more square footage.
Downside: In October, the increased demand caused the average price for a single-family home in Denver to top $625,000 for the first time, signaling that the market could become even more competitive.


Lesson 9: Remote Learning Wasn’t Good for Anyone Involved

Illustration by The Heads of State

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These numbers, taken from a fall 2020 survey by the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative, highlight the biggest problems caused by pandemic learning.

~1/2
Segment of Colorado school districts that said the deterioration of reading skills for students in kindergarten through third grade has become a significant concern because of limited in-person learning.

90%
Percentage of Colorado school districts that indicated that the mental health of teachers has become a leading concern in recent months. Other worries related to educators included fatigue and burnout as well as the possibility of increased turnover.

30,841
Colorado students, many of them in rural districts, who still didn’t have adequate internet access for remote learning as of October 2020. That number was closer to 50,000 at the beginning of the pandemic—a sign local municipalities did help close the gap.

5.9%
The average rate of nonattendance for students participating in fully remote learning models during the pandemic. The number was only 3.2 percent for in-person and just 2.7 percent for hybrid systems.

The Year That Changed Everything

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