Tucked into a Denver Channel article about the city’s Christmas programming was this gem: “‘Going into the new year, if we don’t have zoo lights, we don’t have money in the bank to operate this institution with our thousands of animals and hundreds of employees,’ [Patrick] Phelan said.”
Phelan is the Denver Zoo’s senior director of guest experiences.
The Zoo might well worry. According to its 2019 Annual Report, the Denver Zoo received roughly 22 percent of its revenue from sales taxes through Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD). Roughly five percent of its revenue came directly from the City and County of Denver, and another five percent of its revenue came from Zoo Lights.
With sales tax revenue in Denver estimated to decline 18.5 percent this year, and the city’s budget being cut by roughly 7.5 percent, we can estimate that the Zoo’s revenue from those two sources would put about a 4.5 percent hole in its budget, or close to what it gets from Zoo Lights alone. Cancelling Zoo Lights would bring the total estimated decline to about 10 percent.
A friend of mine recently posted the list of Denver restaurants that have been permanently shuttered because of COVID restrictions. It’s several dozen names long. You may add to that the names of dozens of other businesses that have been forced to close.
The employees at those places of business are no less important than the employees at the Zoo. Sales tax revenue will no doubt be down this year, at least in part from the primary and secondary effects of those business closures.
The Denver Channel never mentions those Coloradans (including Denverites) who will be receiving those $375 state “stimulus” checks because they have no jobs. The level of unawareness required to forget them approaches International Grand Master.
It’s an oversight that isn’t limited to Channel 7. In late summer, Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters ran an interview about RTD ridership, ending with a discussion of statewide highway traffic. The traffic on Denver’s commuter routes was still depressed, even as the tourist and travel routes had bounced back. The discrepancy, the guest concluded, was because of all those people working at home. Apparently, none of the decline could be attributed to the people no long commuting to jobs they no longer had.
The point here isn’t that we should kill the Zoo Lights and leave the Zoo’s employees to suffer the same fate as their fellow citizens who help pay their salaries. The city would be poorer without the Zoo, and the Christmas season would be poorer without the Zoo Lights. The same goes for the other activities mentioned in the article.
Given that Zoo Lights is an outdoor activity, I have little doubt that it could be conducted safely. Just like a great many other activities that this city, and cities around the country, have decided not to allow.
Much of this is rooted in the COVID Original Sin of trying to distinguish between essential and non-essential businesses and activities. There’s no reason why, if a supermarket could safely conduct business, that Hobby Lobby couldn’t. And yet the two were treated entirely differently by the politicians and regulators.
In places here, and across the country, people are beginning to push back. In recent days Weld County’s sheriff and its county commission have both said they won’t be enforcing the new lockdown restrictions that come with being at “level red.” Nearly 100 restaurants, breweries and other small businesses in Loveland have openly refused to shut down under Governor Polis’s renewed lockdown orders on bars and restaurants. Not only would it put a crimp in patrons’ lives, it could deal even more establishments a blow from which they might never recover.
Governments need to stop treating themselves, non-profits, and government-related or government-supported activities and employees as something special, to be protected at all costs, while the livelihoods, and the self-respect and dignity that come with honorable work for the rest of us, are treated as disposable commodities.
Joshua Sharf is a Denver resident and a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.