Denver restaurants respond to coronavirus outbreak with a wartime effort

Most days, Colorado-based chef Andrea Frizzi checks in with his sister in Milan, Italy. She’s very worried about him in Denver.

Frizzi runs Il Posto on Larimer Street, as well as Vero pizza and pasta and Tammen’s Fish counter at Denver Central Market. He sounded exhausted, almost breathless during a phone conversation a week after Denver restaurants were shut down for two months in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“She knows that I don’t stop, because I can’t,” Frizzi said of their conversations. “Restaurants are the new American factories,” he explained. ‘We work with our hands, we stand up, we come in. Now bureaucracy needs to run at the same pace as the crisis.”

As of Wednesday, Frizzi had switched his restaurants’ business models more than once just to survive the first week of the shutdown.

He was selling comfort foods like pizza, pasta, meat and cheese and, mostly, wine in order to keep his remaining staff of around 10 people employed.

Those still working set aside their tips to donate to the more than 20 others who couldn’t keep their jobs for lack of work or health concerns. At Denver Central Market, Frizzi continued stocking basics — eggs, butter, sugar and toilet paper —  to sell alongside to-go meals.

“For now, we are able to pay people,” Frizzi said. “We can’t pay rent, clearly, with this money. We can forget right now about revenue,” and profit and loss.

Millions more in Frizzi’s position across America were waiting during the second week of the shutdown to hear Congress’ plan to help small businesses and workers who had been laid off as a result of coronavirus.

From March 16 to 19 in Colorado, more than 20,000 people filed unemployment insurance claims, or 1,450% more than the week prior. Restaurant workers make up around 10% of state employment, or 294,000 employees. At least 174,000 of them have lost their jobs as of Thursday, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association.

Meanwhile, the Economic Policy Institute estimated Wednesday that more than 250,000 Colorado jobs could be lost by the summer, primarily in hospitality and retail.

“What worries me more than anything is the complete and utter silence about what (restaurants) are doing,” Frizzi said. “The (government) knows we are in trouble, but they don’t say anything. You know when the silence is really loud? We need someone to tell us, ‘We have your back,’ or ‘We don’t,’ because we are alone right now, completely.”

Late Wednesday evening, the Senate approved a $2 trillion rescue package — the largest in American history — that among other measures would include four months of full pay for laid-off workers, direct checks to households and either small business loans or tax credits for companies that are able to retain employees.

Frizzi’s desperation in Denver echoed similar industry pleas all over the U.S. in the last week and a half. Writing for The New York Times on Sunday, José Andrés implored the federal government to mobilize restaurant workers and activate restaurant kitchens in order to feed a country in crisis.

“Every industry group should make its case in this crisis,” Andrés wrote. “But only those of us who work in restaurants can help revive the economy while feeding and building our communities at the same time.”

Until help arrives, restaurants are providing what they can.