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Denver shop illustrates reopening dilemma many small businesses face

BookBar in Denver furloughed several employees in May. The owner has all but given up on applying for loans and encouraged employees to file for unemployment.

DENVER — When life feels stranger than fiction, Nicole Sullivan said she finds reading helps.

“Yeah, it kind of transports you into another world where maybe you can forget about what we’re going through right now for a little bit," Sullivan said.

The owner of BookBar in Denver recently finished her fourth book since the COVID-19 pandemic reached Colorado.

“All those books that I’ve been selling, I’ve actually got time to read some of them," she said.

The stories she reads offer an escape from the reality of a small business owner trying to make it through a pandemic.

“We applied for the emergency loan – the disaster loan and the PPP loan. We didn’t receive a thing," Sullivan said. “I’ve really largely given up on it.”

The Small Business Administration describes the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) as a loan designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. Under the program, the SBA will forgive loans if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

RELATED: What is the Paycheck Protection Program loan forgiveness guidance?

Sullivan said she managed to pay her staff of 15 through April, but she's not ready to reopen BookBar and welcome all of them back.

“It just makes me really nervous," she said. “Half of the store is an 1896 Victorian, so there’s a lot of small spaces that would be difficult to navigate.”

While the city and state allow businesses like hers to reopen their doors, Sullivan said she plans to wait.

“I don’t want a scenario where we open and then we have to close back down," she said. "I would rather go into this being much conservative than leaping right back in.”

RELATED: How a global beverage company got a small-business loan in Colorado

For now, Sullivan said she is convinced half of her employees are better off on furlough.

"With the government funding of that extra $600 a week, they stand to actually make more money on unemployment than if they were to come back to work,” she said.

Small business owners across the city are dealing with the same dilemma. 

“You know, I’m a mom and I feel very sort of motherly towards my staff, so it’s painful to just kind of cut them loose, I guess, even if it is temporary," Sullivan said.

"Temporary" will last at least through May, though Sullivan said she plans to bring back all of her employees.

Sullivan's bookshop and wine bar has relied on online sales for the past couple months. On Wednesday, the shop plans to open curbside delivery for prepaid book orders.

Five of 15 employees are currently working at BookBar. Sullivan said the employees on furlough volunteered to do so, and she hadn't yet heard of any issues they've had filing for unemployment.