Starting Wednesday, Denver restaurants will still be open for in-person dining, but they will limit their seating to 25% capacity and stop serving food and drinks by 10 p.m., according to a new mandate by the City.
With Denver County COVID-19 cases high enough at the end of October to trigger another stay-at-home order, according to the state’s guidelines, the City is taking this stopgap measure in an attempt to avoid another shutdown, officials say.
The new order will last a couple of weeks, at least, according to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.
“We want to avoid (shutting down the economy) at all costs because of the amazing impact that it has on everyone,” Hancock said during a Tuesday press conference.
“With very few exceptions, I can tell you that our restaurants have done a phenomenal job,” he added. “And they are not targeted, I believe they are impacted by things out of our control.”
But restaurant owners say they do consider themselves unfairly targeted by these restrictions.
“We do see this as fairly punitive,” said Stephen Julia, co-owner of Denver restaurants and bars Brass Tacks, Roger’s Liquid Oasis and Curio. “You go to (a certain level), and it automatically shuts down restaurants.”
“We really do a better job than anyone at their home even does cleaning things up and keeping people safe,” he said. “We’ve put a lot of thought and money into (following guidelines), and we’ve kind of proven that it’s working.”
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, there are no current COVID-19 outbreaks at Denver County restaurants. The last Denver restaurant outbreaks reported by the CDPHE occurred in August, when one sit-down restaurant, Mezcal, and one fast-food chain, McDonald’s, dealt with staff infections.
When asked which types of institutions were contributing to the current outbreak levels, Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said that “all venues can contribute.”
“This new order, stemming from the state here, is geared toward addressing all of those venues where we can see cases,” McDonald added.
With smaller restaurant capacities slashing revenue even further and last call moving from 11 p.m. to 10 p.m., Julia said he wants to see assistance to help businesses survive the new restrictions.
“It would be really beneficial if there was also some positive aspect,” Julia said, citing aid, stimulus or help from the federal government as examples.
“Honestly, we feel like the government needs to find a way to make people feel like they’re in it together,” Julia said. “It could make this pandemic a lot less severe, because everyone would follow the rules a little better because they’d feel supported.”
Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs says her organization continues to push for “additional federal relief, whether that’s in the form of an industry-specific grant program or an extension of (payroll protection) or something else entirely.”
Riggs and the CRA see winterized outdoor dining as a partial solution for restaurants trying to survive this next phase and the coming season, but restaurateurs like Julia find their hands tied with no room to spread out and take advantage of open-air seating.
Julia’s bar Brass Tacks, for example, faces downtown Denver’s Blake Street and can’t expand outside. A few blocks down, neighbors Run for the Roses and Pony Up are facing similar problems.
“I love that so many of these neighborhood places have all this additional outdoor space,” Pony Up owner Angela Neri said. “But it’s almost like a slap in the face to us (downtown).”
She said people have suggested she put up greenhouses or igloos for more seating. “Where?” she responds. “We feel a little Charlie Brownish here.”
For now, though, Neri is less worried about the 25% capacity limit and more concerned with the return to a 10 p.m. last call. Her bar serves members of the hospitality industry, and that final hour of sales, when they come in to eat and drink, can amount to 30-50% of nightly business.
“Down here, those are our busiest times,” Neri said. “Our lunch business was very much regulars who were in offices, and they’re not at work anymore.” She’s been getting creative with pop-ups featuring out-of-work chefs and bartenders in order to support fellow industry members while drawing in new patrons.
Across the street from Pony Up, Run for the Roses owner Steven Waters was preparing to wrap up the season on his alleyway outdoor patio when the news of the 25% capacity restriction came Tuesday. His plan was to move business entirely inside for the winter; his bar, which has the feel of a speakeasy, is located in the basement beneath Free Market at Dairy Block.
Come Thanksgiving, he is even planning a tropical-themed winter makeover with entirely different drinks and decor to give patrons something to look forward to through the holidays. But with these new restrictions, those future plans may be moot.
“We won’t make it,” he said. “And we are already going through so many measures to keep people safe.”
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