After months of speculation, Colorado now has an idea of what dining out will look like once restaurants are allowed to re-open. Say hello to masked servers, sign-in sheets, and eight feet of spacing between parties; and so long to buffets, traditional menus, and community tables.
The new restrictions come via a draft of re-opening health and safety guidelines issued by the governor’s office; the requirements aren’t final yet, as the state is looking to stakeholders to provide feedback, and there’s no indication yet as to when bars will be allowed to reopen.
For restaurants, the draft guidelines give some idea what to expect moving forward, including increased table spacing, a limit of six to a party, waiting outside restaurants for a table, wearing a mask when not eating or drinking, contactless payments, and an option to sign in with the restaurant for easier notification of any exposure to the virus. Menus will be a little different, too—reusable ones are prohibited, while disposable, online, or board menus are encouraged. Other recommendations include single-use condiments, which means no more communal salt and pepper shakers and bottles of ketchup.
For restaurants, the new rules are going to require more work, and lots of signage. Workers will need to mark off unavailable seating areas, post cleaning logs, and notify staff and guests of hygiene expectations. No customers can enter a restaurant if they’re experiencing any symptoms of illness. Owners and managers must provide hand sanitizer throughout the space, clean and disinfect more frequently, and shut down any dance floors or games (including darts, pool, and arcade games). They’ll need to eliminate communal tables, bar seating if it’s being used for food or beverage service, self-seating, buffets, and self-service stations. Restrooms must be sanitized every 30 minutes and stalls need to be blocked off to adhere to the six-foot distancing requirements. Employees will be required to wear masks and gloves, get their temperature checked at the beginning of each shift, and maintain six-foot distancing from other employees as much as possible.
But it’s the eight feet of spacing between tables that may hurt restaurant operators the most. Fewer tables equals fewer paying customers. In an effort to mitigate revenue loss from these restrictions, the governor is supporting cities and municipalities in allowing restaurants to expand their outdoor seating options to include areas like parking lots, lawns, sidewalks, and even streets.
Earlier this week, the City and County of Denver announced that it was accepting proposals from bars and restaurants for patio modifications that include setting up tables and chairs in adjacent outdoor areas. Restaurants must receive city approval for the plans, and follow the same eight-foot table distancing regulations as for indoor dining. Parking lots and quiet sidewalks may be obvious choices for such expansions, but streets are fair game, too, similar to the usual summer-long Dining al Fresco on Larimer Square.
“The outdoor seating is going to be a real game changer for many restaurants,” says Katie Lazor, executive director of EatDenver. “It’s really great to see the governor and city of Denver supportive of outdoor seating. With eight feet between parties, some restaurants will be at a max of 15 to 20 percent of their typical business while implementing social distancing, so that outdoor expansion is really critical.”
Denver’s temporary program would go into effect as soon as restaurants are allowed to re-open—Gov. Polis is expected to announce a re-opening date and finalized health guidelines early next week—and will last until September 7, with the potential for extension. The new outdoor spaces cannot be used for live music or games and must close by 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.
Businesses must have their new outdoor areas approved by the city of Denver, and multiple agencies will be involved in the approval process. The Denver Departments of Excise and Licenses, Community Planning & Development, and Transportation & Infrastructure will all be a part of ensuring that the expanded spaces don’t impact public safety and mobility. Lazor says that more than 75 applications were submitted on May 18, when the application process opened, so Denverites could be getting a whole lot more options for summer al fresco dining.
“I think the new outdoor seating push is going to not only help restaurants expand their seating, but it will also increase guest confidence with the open-air setting,” Lazor says. “Being able to be farther from other guests—that will be really important for customer confidence and getting people back in the mood to eat out at restaurants. And we won’t have any large events, at least in the beginning of summer, so re-opening restaurants will be a huge morale boost for our city, helping us feel connected to each other.”