Colorado restaurants on a ‘rollercoaster ride’ of changing COVID restrictions

Even as some indoor seating reopens, cases are on the rise again

restaurant
An employee at the Briar Common Brewery + Eatery in Denver pours a beer for a patron on Jan. 7, 2021. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Barolo Grill, a 27-year-old West Denver restaurant offering food and wine from northern Italy, had never served customers seated outdoors — until this June.

But the COVID-19 pandemic called for a “leap of faith,” owner Ryan Fletter recalled Jan. 6, taking a break from the day’s work of building outdoor bungalows for a phone interview.

“I will have spent potentially close to $100,000 when this is all over, perhaps, for (outdoor seating),” Fletter said. “Is it worth it? I don’t know that it’s easy to suggest that yet. … It’s sort of like a ‘Matrix’ movie, and we’re sort of jumping from one building ledge to the next.”

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After Gov. Jared Polis directed the state health department to move all red-level counties to the less restrictive orange level of the state’s COVID-19 dial system, many restaurants throughout Colorado reopened 25% of their pre-COVID indoor capacity Jan. 4. Previously, those counties in the red level were required to prohibit indoor dining (except for restaurants that were certified through a handful of local “5 Star” programs).

Barolo Grill bungalow
Barolo Grill, a Denver restaurant offering food and wine from northern Italy, recently added bungalows to accommodate guests outdoors. (Courtesy of Barolo Grill)

The announcement came as a relief for Fletter, whose staff and customers had been weathering 40-degree temperatures to keep the business afloat.

Still, Fletter stuck with his plan to set up the bungalows, which offer a slightly warmer outdoor environment for customers worried about the coronavirus. They’re now offered as an option in addition to takeout, patio seating, and limited indoor dining.

Fletter’s not alone in taking the leap. Amid frequently changing health restrictions and a pandemic caused by a novel, unpredictable virus, restauranteurs say they’ve learned to innovate, turn on a dime, and — perhaps most importantly — plan for the worst, while trying to maintain a positive attitude despite all the challenges.

Many Colorado restaurants still plan to lean on their outdoor setups this winter and spring, some beyond the pandemic.

In a statement provided to Newsline, Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs said such investments will “continue to be critical” even as restaurants open their dining rooms to small numbers of customers.

The orange-level restrictions mandating a maximum indoor capacity of 25%, or up to 50 customers — whichever is fewer — “will not keep most restaurants open,” Riggs said. “Consider that restaurants say they need to be at 75% capacity in order to survive even medium-term. No level of the dial currently allows restaurants to open beyond 50% capacity indoors — so adding seats outdoors is going to be important through the winter and as long as capacity restrictions persist.”

COVID-19 dial metrics
This table shows the COVID-19 thresholds that counties in each level are supposed to meet. However, Polis directed the state to move many counties to the orange level on Jan. 4 even though they had metrics aligned with the red level. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

In November, restaurants surveyed by the Colorado Restaurant Association “estimated that winterizing their patios would boost revenue by 41% on average, and save or create 29% of all staff jobs,” Riggs noted. “54% of restaurants say a winter patio expansion program is very important to staying open.”

Fletter counts himself lucky to have avoided the worst, so far. He’s been able to keep his staff employed throughout the pandemic, repurposing waiters and kitchen staff to help with painting the dining room, bagging food and posting on social media. Barolo Grill also hasn’t experienced any cases of COVID-19, he said.

“This’ll be … another mental exercise and rollercoaster ride this week,” Fletter said of the ability to add indoor seating.

Indoor dining shut down Nov. 20

But Barolo Grill’s bill for outdoor seating is too steep a cost for many restaurants, according to the Colorado Restaurant Association’s November survey.

“Restaurants report that on average, it will cost $17,630 to winterize their patios for the winter — a cost many have determined is simply too high without further help,” the association stated, citing survey results showing “18% of restaurants say they will not take advantage of a winter patio expansion program, with many citing cost as the main deterrent.”

Kent Dawson, owner of Briar Common Brewery + Eatery, poses for a portrait outside his Denver restaurant on Jan. 7, 2021. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

At Briar Common Brewery + Eatery in Denver’s Jefferson Park neighborhood, owners declined to invest in an expensive new setup.

“On our rooftop we do have some heaters — they’re not terribly effective — but we will get people sitting out in 40-degree weather eating and drinking,” co-owner Kent Dawson said. The restaurant has both rooftop and street-level patios, he explained, and offers takeout and delivery.

“It’s a significant amount of money that would take more than the duration of a shutdown to recoup that money for us,” he said of the cost of adding new outdoor dining structures. “Every restaurant’s different, but for us, we did decide to stay open with the takeout/delivery, and we did see people outside that were brave enough to deal with the cold.”

Briar Common reopened at 25% capacity on Jan. 6, after closing for a few days to sanitize the restaurant and train employees on the newest public health regulations.

Dawson’s team was relieved and excited to hear they’d be able to reopen some of their dining space. Denver restaurants had been under red-level restrictions prohibiting indoor dining since Nov. 20.

“We were concerned, especially with the news of the new variant, (that) the shutdown could go on a lot longer,” Dawson said, referring to a new strain of the coronavirus. “But I do think that Gov. Polis has our interests in mind, and I think throughout this whole thing I think he’s made good decisions balancing the health and safety and survival of small business.”

Briar Common Brewery + Eatery in Denver is pictured Jan. 7, 2021. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

At nearby restaurant American Elm, owner Bob Reiter jumped on a deal for six outdoor greenhouses, which his team picked up in recent weeks from another eatery that decided to close for the winter.

“We’re really glad to have gotten them,” Reiter said. “We had sort of been looking at some options and they were a little cost-prohibitive, we thought, but these were available for a price that we were sort of comfortable with, and they’ve worked out really well.”

Reiter also credits American Elm’s chef, Brent Turnipseede, for spearheading another income stream: pre-cooked weekly meals for one, two or four people, with a choice of three or five meals on a menu dreamed up each week by the chef.

“My wife and I have two kids, and we both were working from home in the pandemic,” Reiter said. “For us in that window when the kids were home from school, we’re both working from home, having that just easy option to pop in the oven — but, you know, still fresh-quality healthy food with local ingredients — was just really valuable.”

Though American Elm is now open at 25% capacity indoors, it still offers the pre-cooked meals, Reiter said, and has no intention to stop after the pandemic ends.

“As a business operator, just sort of from a philosophical perspective, having these constant changes and being forced into a position of discomfort is often where some really exciting and innovative shifts are born,” Reiter reflected.

At Briar Common Brewery + Eatery in Denver, pictured Jan. 7, 2021, patrons can order using their phone. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

Still, restaurant owners say navigating the frequently changing state and local restrictions has been a challenge during the pandemic.

“It seems like every week there’s a new set of rules,” Dawson said. “And we just — we read them, we figure them out, implement them. We don’t complain, because that’s not going to get us anywhere.”

Dawson stays up to date on the changing restrictions through EatDenver, a group representing Denver’s independent restaurants. He doesn’t remember getting any communication directly from state or local health officials.

“If we had to rely directly on information coming from the health department, I’m not quite sure how we would manage that,” he said.

Indoor dining poses risks

Health officials typically agree that it takes about two weeks for the effects of a major policy change — like reopening indoor dining — to show up in the COVID-19 data.

As of Jan. 11, it had been only one week since the state moved counties on the dial, but transmission was on the rise in many areas of the state. The seven-day average of new reported cases has increased since Dec. 29, when around 1,840 new cases were being reported statewide each day, to an average of 2,301 new cases each day from Jan. 5 to Jan. 11.

That rise in cases probably reflects people gathering more for the Christmas and New Year’s events, and it’s too early to see how much of an impact reopening indoor dining will make on the data. But health experts are concerned that restaurants could play a growing role in transmission as the pandemic drags on.

In Pitkin County, which has one of the highest case incidence rates in the state, COVID-19 outbreaks among restaurant employees accounted for 11.8% of all cases reported within the last month, according to county epidemiologist Josh Vance.

“We continue to see the (highest) number of outbreaks are occurring in the restaurant sector,” Vance said during a Jan. 7 meeting of the Pitkin County Board of Health.

The board of health voted Jan. 11 to implement red-level restrictions on restaurants, closing indoor dining. Pitkin County had already implemented other red-level public health measures last month, but state and local officials had previously allowed indoor dining to stay open, with capacity limits, throughout the pandemic.

In another example of virus transmission in the food industry, In-N-Out Burger’s new fast-food locations in Colorado Springs and Aurora are dealing with ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks among their employees. The state’s latest data show a total of 83 cases among staff at the Colorado Springs location and 62 among staff in Aurora. Both outbreaks began in December, when indoor dining was still closed, and were still active as of Jan. 6.

According to the data, those cases all stem from one of the two In-N-Out locations — when tracking outbreaks, health workers confirm that COVID-19 was contracted at the location where an outbreak is reported, and not outside of the workplace or facility.

Dr. Jonathan Samet, an infectious disease expert and dean of Colorado School of Public Health, points to In-N-Out’s outbreaks to show how virus transmission is more likely to occur when lots of people are working close together in an indoor environment. Coronavirus particles circulate more easily in enclosed spaces.

“Clearly when we’re on the rise with the epidemic curve, as we were across much of October and into November, closing restaurants was an important measure to protect public health,” Samet said.

Now that indoor dining is open across the state, spacing tables apart can help reduce the risks, Samet said, but smaller coronavirus particles can still travel “all around the restaurant.”

“People will be taking masks off while they’re eating — servers will be exposed,” he said.

When asked for his reaction to Polis’ announcement that dozens of counties would be allowed to move to the orange level reopen indoor dining, Samet didn’t offer a strong opinion one way or another. He called the decision a “tradeoff” between getting people back to work and assessing the public health risks.

“I think those (counties were moved) at a not unreasonable time,” Samet said. “You know, could we have waited another week or two? Of course, and I’m not sure there’s any particular, easy balance point to say, ‘Yep, we’ve got the epidemic under control enough, and now we can open up.'”

Ale House Denver
Ale House Denver added greenhouse structures for outdoor dining. (Stephanie Grado)

The team at Ale House Denver had already been brainstorming a new outdoor dining concept before indoor dining shut down in late November, according to general manager Thom Neil. They plan to keep the outdoor structures open as part of a pandemic plan that includes spacing tables 10 feet apart and offering multiple sanitizer stations throughout the restaurant.

“We had six of the greenhouses set up by the time we were told to shut down inside dining,” Neil said. “It was perfect timing for us at that point … and we have lights and stuff on them, so it was nice for the holiday season for people to be able to experience it, especially when the snow was falling and the temperatures were dropping.”

For Neil, coronavirus safety is a top concern. While Ale House Denver isn’t aware of cases among employees or customers, Neil’s father contracted COVID-19 in Scotland, he said.

“Any restaurant during this pandemic can only last so long not making profit,” Neil said, when asked whether the restaurant would be able to survive at 25% capacity through the spring. “We all have rents to pay, we have food costs, we have beverage costs and we also have staff that we’re paying.”

“So yeah, we would like to see a general process of being able to open back up, but we’re also realistic knowing there’s a pandemic going on at the moment,” he said, adding that “none of us want to be the cause” of someone getting sick.

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Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the neighborhood in which Briar Common is located.