An inscription on the entrance wall of Denver’s Wellington E. Webb Municipal Building asks those who enter “What is the city but the people?”
That question may never have been more relevant now that the coronavirus has scared most city dwellers inside.
Normally, on a sunny and warm March day mid-work week in Colorado’s capital, blocks of downtown highrises and co-working spaces, sports bars and salad joints would be bustling with 9-to-5ers, telecommuters, and conventioneers. Playgrounds in the nearby Sun Valley neighborhood would be swinging with the children of immigrants standing by with juice boxes and extra layers. Seniors at a community center in North Park Hill would be playing speed chess. A jazz band would be practicing at Denver’s School of the Arts. Cafés and juice bars would be hopping in Cherry Creek North. And every parking spot within five blocks of the state Capitol likely would be taken.
But few people were in sight in wide swaths of the city Wednesday.
Restaurants and coffee shops were empty, their skeleton wait-crews waiting by the phone for to-go orders that didn’t come. Intersections that normally take three green lights to cross were passable in one, with 30 seconds to spare. Public libraries and even Denver’s iconic independent book store, The Tattered Cover, were shuttered until further notice. And shopping carts that stockpilers seem to have pushed all the way home were left abandoned on sidewalks throughout the city.
Most Denverites were hunkered down at home, not knowing how many weeks or months they’ll have to hunker.
In their absence, their invisibility, the cityscape seemed occupied mainly by construction workers, whose welding and jack hammering continued as if there were no pandemic or economic crash, and by people who are homeless and for whom social distancing is a luxury they cannot afford.
“Yeah, that’s a concept for people with homes,” said Kimmie Brown, who has been camping on Denver’s sidewalks since moving from Alabama four months ago.
Brown and her husband had spent four nights in a makeshift tent at 25th and Curtis streets until a Denver police sergeant came by Wednesday morning and forced them to decamp. They were too close to a schoolhouse a block away and could infect the students, the officer told them. He apparently was unpersuaded by their argument that the risk is low, given schools in Denver had been canceled indefinitely. By the end of the day, Gov. Jared Polis had ordered all school buildings closed until at least April 17.
Brown was well aware of the rain and snow forecast for today and of the potentially deadly virus expected to infect millions of Americans.
“I know there are storms coming,” she said.
She plans to weather them on Denver sidewalks, even as restrooms, showers, meals and other services for the homeless become harder to find. Sheltering in place, for her and thousands of other unhoused Denverites, looks pretty much like it always has.
“I’ll stick this out until the virus goes away. And, no, I’m not worried, not the least bit,” Brown said. “I have God on my side.”
Pepe Garayoa wasn’t feeling so blessed. He said he saved up for eight years to buy and build the black food truck out of which he runs Pepe’s Tortas and Burgers, a favorite among late-night clubgoers in LoDo and RiNo. Business dropped sharply when Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced a state of emergency last week, and it hasn’t rebounded since Hancock banned sit-in restaurant dining on Tuesday.
“Nobody’s coming. Everything is closed,” he said in tears Wednesday. “It’s understandable, I know. But we can’t make it like this. We’re not going to be able to make it.”
Some parts of Denver looked like an empty movie set Wednesday, or a montage of those real estate photos that purposely leave out people.
Cyclists and skateboarders zoomed from point A to point B with neck gaiters over their mouths and noses. Dog walkers scurried out with their pooches, urging them to hop to it and get busy.
Eleven-year-old Asli Mahamud’s friends are all holed up at home, unable to hang out with her. “I don’t know what to think,” she said from the corner of Decatur and Holden waiting for Sun Valley’s food bank to open.
She translated for her grandmother, Fatima Hassan, who was pacing the sidewalk.
“No people. No good,” she said. “She is scared.”
“People are getting crazy about what to do, how we will eat,” added Mariscela Lopez, who had come, as she does most weeks, for help feeding her family of four. She kept counting the minutes until the food bank opened, anxious to get back home and take shelter.
“Me, I don’t like this, what I see out here – a city so big and so quiet.”