The following is an article and interview by Chris Wheeler, Louisville photojournalist and producer of 9News Special: “Coronavirus Winter: A Small Town Portrait in Black and White
On a beautiful late summer day, 70-year old Tom Horst strolls down the closed section of Main Street in downtown Louisville with a perspective and appreciation few could ever match. Tom and wife Kristy own Crystal Springs Brewing Company at Main and Elm Street.
Like all other Downtown Louisville restaurant owners and employees, Tom had an indescribable sick feeling last March 16th. Governor Jared Polis had just issued an order to prohibit on-site dining for all restaurants and bars in Colorado. Tom felt more than heartache and worry. Just a year earlier, he had survived a bout with prostrate cancer. As COVID-19 began to sweep into Colorado, Tom began to have problems breathing. Little did Tom know that just a few days later, he would be in the Intensive Care Unit at Boulder Community Hospital. He became one of the first coronavirus victims in Boulder County.
While others in downtown Louisville were fighting to save their businesses, Tom was fighting to save his life. When he was admitted March 22nd, Tom struggled to take a breath. Doctors strongly considered putting him on a ventilator. “I almost died,” Tom learned later. “They didn’t think I was going to make it.” To make matters even worse, Kristy was hospitalized the same day as Tom and her COVID test came back positive. Fortunately, Kristy’s condition was not as serious as Tom’s. She was released from the hospital after five days.
On his 5th day at Boulder Community, Tom’s condition began to slowly improve. The plan to bring in the ventilator was put on hold. After ten days in ICU, he was discharged, then had to stay another eleven days in solitary quarantine in his home outside of Boulder. In less than two weeks, he had lost 24 pounds. Breathing remained a struggle. His lungs had been ravaged by the infection. In the understatement of 2020, Tom said: “One of the most awful experiences I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
During their trials with COVID-19, Tom and Kristy also had to deal with another heavy burden. “I was afraid we would lose the business,” Tom said. Like all small businesses, Crystal Springs Brewing was born of hard work and big dreams. It began in 2010. In January and February of 2020, sales were up almost 40%. “Then, Kaboom!” as Tom put it.
While Tom and Kristy were recovering, General Manager Colin Woods, and Kristy’s daughter Dion Riley led the effort to keep Crystal Springs afloat. Colin and Emily Rippeteau were able to complete the PPE loan application Tom had started. Nate O’Rourke , Bond Bixler and the rest of the staff pushed for stronger online sales and carryout business, while brewers Tim Russell, Ryan Moccia and Deidrick Evel kept the beer flowing. “They saved us,” remembers Tom. “It was amazing!”
While the Crystal Springs staff did their part, so did our beloved community. Tom recounts countless times that Louisville residents would buy cases of Naughty Marilyn and Blood Orange Kolsch to share with neighbors. They did it not because of need for beer (though it never hurts), but because Crystal Springs needed the business. “I grew up in a small midwestern town and I remember well how the residents of that town would take care of each other,” says Tom. “While Louisville is a much larger town, it has that same big heart.”
Five months later, the COVID-19 chapter of their lives sometimes feels like a bad dream for Tom and Kristy. On the last Friday of August, Crystal Springs was abuzz with laughter, good cheer – and great beer. It’s been more than 10 weeks since the City of Louisville closed three blocks of Main Street in order to help Crystal Springs and other downtown businesses devastated by the awful virus. Almost all agree that the Main Street experiment is an unmitigated success.
“The Main Street closure has been the difference between success and failure,” said Tom. “It’s helped all restaurants in downtown, not just the ones on Main Street.” The move has enabled Crystal Springs to seat 30 additional guests. Tom says many are new customers who are curious to check out Louisville’s “new” Main Street. Crystal Springs sales are up 75% from their curbside service during the first weeks of COVID-19.
However, with summer winding down, the party may be ending just as it was getting going. On October 5, the City is scheduled to once again open the three blocks of Main Street to vehicular traffic. But Tom and some of the other downtown businesses are hoping to keep the celebration going through October. On Tuesday, September 1, City Council will vote on extending the Main Street closure until the end of October. Having an extra month of revenue earned from additional outside seating will soften the blow of the coronavirus beast, Tom says.
On a lovely August evening, the dark days of March and April seem like a lifetime ago. Yet, there are reminders of what the COVID monster has brought. And worrisome reminders of what lies ahead. The thermometer may say 95 but the calendar says big changes are just weeks, if not days, away. The approach of the long winter is always a worrisome time for downtown business owners. This year, the worry is magnified. Last spring, most had hoped that COVID-19 would move along as the pine beetles finally did in our mountains. That is not the case. The first snowflakes of the season will bring the question all restaurants owners are thinking: Will diners feel more comfortable eating outside or will they be willing to move indoors?
Tom is not counting on it. With current social distancing regulations, Crystal Springs can only seat 20 customers inside. Tents are not an option because they are considered “indoors. Propane heaters are prohibited. So Tom is working on plans to erect a large canopy that will cover a portion of the beer garden in the rear. He is looking into electric heating systems that will make it comfortable on a cold Colorado day. And he is not counting out the latest scuttlebutt in downtown: that the City will keep Main Street closed year round.
There are other reminders that this is no ordinary year. For Tom, masks are a sobering reminder of the virus that almost took his life. But he’s not complaining. “Customers have been incredible about wearing masks,” Tom says. “Everyone seems to be respectful. They are doing all the stuff they are supposed to do.”
An even more painful reminder is Tom’s current health. While his lungs are still healing from the virus, Tom’s lung capacity will never be the same. “I get out of breath easily,” Tom says. “I will never be able to run or bike again.”
All it takes from Tom to be thankful is a glance down Main Street on a beautiful August evening, and to see happy customers sipping Crystal Springs beer. There, he sees the spirit of a community that stepped up to help when all seemed lost. On Main Street, Tom sees hope.
“I am so thankful for the love and support we have received in Louisville. And I hope one day, we can return the favor.”
Don’t worry about it, Tom. You already have.
Please support our downtown businesses by asking City Council to extend the Main Street closure. Email Council at: Council@LouisvilleCO.gov