On Thursday morning, Jason and Jeanette Burgett opened their Highland cafe, the Wooden Spoon, at 7 a.m. as usual. Their team put fresh pastries in the display case and started making egg sandwiches and scrambles.
And when customers walked to the counter to grab those orders, the staff donned gloves and handed out to-go boxes, asking everyone — politely — to eat their food elsewhere. Along the restaurant’s far wall, all 18 chairs were stacked on top of a row of tables.
“We’ve only had a couple (of customers) who walked away. Other than that, they’ve all been grateful for it,” Jason Burgett said of the decision to sell takeout only starting Thursday.
For the past couple of weeks, the Burgetts have taken extra precautions to sanitize their small, decade-old neighborhood cafe and kitchen.
“And then last night,” Burgett said, “when everything escalated, well, in the food industry, not all of us have health insurance. So to keep us all safe and working, we decided to make everything to-go … So there’s not people sitting literally two feet from each other.”
On Wednesday night, President Trump addressed the nation regarding the new coronavirus. Earlier that day, the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. By Thursday, the U.S. stock market saw its largest drop since 1987.
Unable to do anything else, restaurants in Denver and elsewhere responded with drink specials, free deliveries and even changes in their business structure in order to stay open.
“We’re trying to take all the precautions for all of us here,” Burgett said. “This is how we make money, through the customers, and if the customers get sick, you know, we can’t help them.”
While the Wooden Spoon will stick solely to carryout until the virus is “somewhat contained,” Burgett said, other restaurant owners are taking different approaches to keep their workers and customers safe, and themselves in business. At Chook’s two Denver locations, Id Est restaurants and more, curbside pickup is a new option for customers.
On East Colfax, Vince Howard said he’s running his recently opened Tessa Delicatessen as usual, though “I wanted the bathrooms to smell like Comet this morning,” he added.
Howard said the recommended protocols of washing and cleaning “are really things that we already do” in a restaurant. He had posted a message a day earlier on Tessa’s Instagram account, assuring customers of his own precautions and asking them to act responsibly in return. If they’re sick, he said, they should order food through delivery channels.
“We are here to serve our guests,” the message said. “We do so with cleanliness and pride in our health, as well as our craft. What we do for you is so important to us.”
As the new coronavirus has spread around the globe, and even as restaurants continue to serve their customers, they have been some of the indirect casualties — whether through racism against Chinese-owned businesses, curfews and lockdowns in countries like Italy or canceled events and festivals such as South by Southwest in Texas.
And while older demographics and those with pre-existing health conditions are the most at-risk individuals, restaurant workers are often employed without health insurance or other workplace benefits to aid them in sickness.
“Here’s the thing: Food-service workers, regardless if they work at the cheap buffet or the fancy restaurant, don’t want to get sick, either,” L.A. Times food editor Peter Meehan wrote Thursday in a column. “If you can’t trust that they’re doing their best to keep themselves — and, by extension, you — safe, then your problems are deeper-seated than a (newspaper) food section can help you with.”
Early this week, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced that businesses would be required to compensate sick workers while they take time to get tested and wait for results to return. Local burrito chain Illegal Pete’s is taking the mandate a step further, offering paid time off to sick employees.
“Honestly, I feel more concerned for the food-service workers than their customers,” said Elaine Scallan Walter, an associate professor of epidemiology with the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora. “I don’t think there’s any reason for those who are not at high risk not to go out (to eat),” she added.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, older adults and those with serious underlying medical conditions such as heart disease or diabetes should avoid crowds and practice social distancing as much as possible. Those who are healthy should prevent illness by washing or sanitizing their hands often, avoiding close contact in public, and covering any coughs or sneezes.
But nationwide data sent from Resy, the booking platform, to its restaurant clients earlier this week shows that reservations were down already on Tuesday by as much as 65% in Seattle and 30% in New York City. “All restaurants should anticipate very significant cover and revenue declines in April and May,” the platform stated.
In the restaurant-filled Denver neighborhood of LoHi, The Bindery has started to see a slowing of weekday dinner reservations, according to owner Linda Hampsten Fox.
“I think once people are ending their workday, they are eating at home partially to stay away from the virus and crowds, but also to save money,” she said. “As a restaurant owner, there are so many unknowns that we are addressing as quickly as we can.”
For her, part of addressing those unknowns means making sure the dining room is well ventilated, the tables are spaced safely apart, bathrooms are cleaned every hour and the whole restaurant is sanitized daily. Hampsten Fox said she’s also increasing grab-and-go lunch options and even starting her own dinner delivery service within a 1/2-mile radius.
Delivery companies like Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash and Caviar all offer options for orders to be left outside the door of a diner’s residence. Uber, DoorDash and Caviar also are implementing paid time off for up to two weeks for drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in either quarantine or isolation.
“I think for those at a higher risk … delivery is probably a good option,” Scallan Walter with the Colorado School of Public Health said. “It’s not a food-borne disease, but I think we’re still learning a lot. So does it stay on surfaces? Should you be concerned about packaging? Those things are still unknown. You might want to wash your hands after removing food from the package.”
While guidelines are changing from day to day, Scallan Walter is still teaching in-person classes to graduate students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. And she’s also living her life outside of work.
“I think being able to frequent your local coffee shop or restaurant and being able to take the precautions that are recommended, certainly at the moment that seems like a reasonable option,” she said, adding, “Well, I’m going out tonight.”
Food delivery advice
Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs said to contact restaurants directly about delivery, “as sometimes third-party companies list restaurant menus without permission and may have an outdated menu posted.”
“And as a reminder to patrons,” she said, “restaurants train rigorously in preventing the spread of disease, and they are heavily regulated by health code. We’ve heard from many restaurants that are implementing sanitation procedures that are well beyond what is mandated to ensure a safe and comfortable experience for guests, and this is true whether those guests dine in or order out.”
Updated March 13 at 1:05 p.m.The following corrected information has been added to this article: Because of a reporting error, the state of the U.S. stock market was previously misstated. On Thursday, March 12, the Dow experienced its largest daily plunge since 1987.
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