A month’s worth of stricter restrictions on restaurants, gyms and other types of businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the Colorado economy as new unemployment filings continued to climb at an alarming rate last week.
The Colorado Department of Labor of Employment reported Thursday that 52,386 people filed initial claims for unemployment during the week ending Dec. 19.
That’s a 29.4% increase over the week ending Dec. 12. It’s the single worst week for new claims since April, and roughly a five-fold increase over weekly claims volume seen as recently as October.
Of those who filed last week, 24,397applied for the state’s traditional benefits program. The rest, 27,989 workers, filed for the federally funded Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, or PUA, program.
State labor officials raced to stand up the program in April after it was authorized by the $2 trillion CARES Act pandemic stimulus package. But funding for PUA and other federal programs like the 13-week Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation extension runs out on Saturday, leaving 280,000 people without benefits.
The new COVID-19 relief bill passed by Congress this month — but still awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature as of Thursday morning — will extend the PUA and federal extended benefits programs into 2021. Still, it will be at least four weeks before that funding is reactivated for tens of thousands of Coloradans relying on that money to pay for food, housing and other necessities.
More than 253,000 people filed continuing claims for unemployment programs in Colorado last week. The state’s unemployment rate for November was 6.4%.
The recent spike in unemployment filings follows closely with when Denver and many other high-population counties in the state were moved to Level Red restrictions on the state’s coronavirus threat dial in mid-November. Level Red health measures prohibit indoor dining at restaurants and cap capacity as many other businesses at 25%, 10% in the case of gyms and fitness centers.
Since those restrictions have gone into place, unemployment filings from workers in the food service and accommodations industries have skyrocketed in Colorado. In the last week of October, 864 workers from those industries filed initial unemployment claims. During the week ending Dec. 5, more than 4,300 restaurant and hospitality workers sought unemployment support.
Thirty-four counties in Colorado are now on Level Red restrictions but Colorado’s recently launched Five Star State Certification Program is providing businesses with avenues to increase their capacity and, potentially, bring back furloughed and laid off staff members in the process.
Under the Five Star rules, counties can receive approval from the state to set up a program that allows businesses to increase capacity beyond regular public health restrictions. To qualify for increased capacities, businesses must meet more stringent safety standards.
In Douglas County, 33 businesses, including 18 restaurants and 14 gyms and fitness centers, were granted permission to increase their indoor guest capacity to 25% on Wednesday after meeting county Five Start guidelines. Summit and Larimer counties are working to stand up their own Five Star rules now and Arapahoe County has been approved to follow suit.