Hickenlooper campaign stop highlights COVID-19 struggles for businesses, campaigns alike

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AURORA | Small, locally-owned businesses are the heart of the Havana Business Improvement District in Aurora. John Hickenlooper, Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, toured a handful of them Wednesday, vowing to do more on their behalf if he’s elected.

His first stop was at the south end of the 4.3-mile long district. County and state lawmakers piled into the Specialists Barber Club, sandwiched between a frozen yogurt joint and tattoo parlor in a strip mall off of South Havana Street and East Yale Avenue. The window advertises $12 haircuts. 

“This is the closest I’ve been to anybody in a long time,” said Aurora State House Rep. Dominique Jackson before the former governor arrived. The campaign’s policy is to hold events with fewer than 12 people — due to the COVID-19 pandemic — but it quickly ballooned to a full shop. Hickenlooper said he counted 20 people, and wasn’t particularly pleased the event had exceeded capacity. 

“That’s too many,” he told the Sentinel afterward. “But at the same time, the goal is not perfection, the goal is to be safe, and make sure nobody gets it (the virus). I get tested at least once a week, sometimes twice a week, and I am isolated in my house.”

Specialists Barber Club — which specializes in braids, fades, shaves, dreadlocks, razer lines and more — opened 15 months ago, and likely hasn’t seen the shop as full as it did Wednesday in several months because of state regulations to slow the spread of the virus.

The campaign stops painted a complicated picture amid a near-crippling pandemic that has hit businesses throughout the business improvement district hard and a crucial election year for both parties. 

Business owners are eager to chat with candidates. They’re even more eager to return to business as usual.

“I haven’t myself received any funding,” said shop owner Shaunte Baker, as Hickenlooper was asked what he’d do to help Black-owned businesses that are hubs for their communities.

Hickenloper said federal aid money seemed to be “slanted toward big business, large corporations and against small businesses.” 

Sen. Cory Gardner, who Hickenlooper is hoping to oust, aired a television ad last week featuring a small business, Rosie’s Diner in Monument, that did receive federal aid. 

In the ad, the diner owner says Rosie’s serves some 5,000 meals a week. That changed on March 17 when COVID-19 regulations shut down in-person dining, “but Cory Gardner got us help,” he says. “Cory Gardner passed forgivable loans for small businesses. Surviving a recession is really hard work. Coloradans are lucky our senator works hard too.”

Down the street from the barber shop on Havana Street at M Mart, a Korean grocery store, owner Augustine Lee said business has been good, mainly because so many people have been cooking meals at home during the pandemic. The store was mostly empty when Hickenlooper arrived Wednesday afternoon. A few customers waited in the checkout line.

Lee, who walked Hickenlooper through a few aisles of the store and replaced his off-kilter cloth face mask with a fancy-looking disposable mask, said for him this election year the economy is at the top of his priority list, especially as COVID-19 has thrown so much uncertainty at businesses.

“This is to me, you know, is the American dream. You see it right in front of us,” said Hickelooper pointing to the store’s big bright sign.

Hickenlooper, who before being elected governor and mayor of Denver, was a brewpub owner and says he knows the struggle of growing a small business. A lot of his friends that have been in the restaurant business for decades say they might never recover because of the pandemic, he said. 

“That’s the hardest of hard times when you see your friends, and you know Washington just didn’t respond. The negligence. The White House and President Trump said, ‘This is nothing we don’t worry about it,’” he said. “There’s a story that came out today, I heard that he (Trump) actually did think it was something but he thought it was important to pretend it wasn’t something to worry about. And then when they did address it, they were incompetent.”

Hickenlooper finished his zig-zag tour of Havana’s business improvement district across the street at the Heirloom Antique Mall and lunch at the Nile Ethiopian Restaurant.

A previous version of this article cited Rosie’s Diner as an Aurora establishment. The diner in the television ad is in Monument.