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Eat and Drink

How the Closure of Indoor Dining Will Affect Denver Restaurants

Restaurants may remain open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining, but in-person last call is now at 8 p.m.

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Nearly eight months to the day following the first pandemic-induced shutdown, Governor Jared Polis ordered the closure of local restaurants to dine-in service in several counties, including Denver. With COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rising to an all-time high in the state, Polis tightened restrictions to help stop the spread and transmission of the virus and to hopefully prevent a larger shutdown in the future. But it’s just more bad news for the restaurant industry in a year that’s already been chock full.

Polis, joined at the November 17 press conference by Denver mayor Michael Hancock, said that 10 to 15 counties would be affected by the new regulations; later in the day, a map of the 15 counties affected was posted here, including Jefferson, Arapahoe, and Adams counties. The restrictions go into effect on Friday, November 20.

At that time, restaurants may remain open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining, but Polis said that parties eating outside should be limited to a single household. Last call has also been moved up to 8 p.m. (from 10 p.m.) for outdoor dining—you can order alcohol to go until 10 p.m. and for delivery until 2 a.m.—and will last for 30 days, with the potential for extension.

As Colorado braces for colder weather, the new dine-in closure will certainly have a negative impact on the already hard-hit hospitality industry; many independent restaurants worry they won’t survive the winter. Last week, the Colorado Restaurant Association (CRA) released a survey reporting that 79 percent of restaurants will consider closing permanently within six months if indoor dining becomes prohibited—and here we are. Nearly a quarter of restaurants said they’d consider closing permanently within a month of a shutdown.

“I’m certainly taken aback,” said Austin Carson, co-owner of Restaurant Olivia, following the press conference. “It came about a lot more quickly than I thought it would. That said, I would have been surprised if we went through winter unscathed.”

Without much of an outdoor seating area, Olivia will be heavily reliant on takeout and delivery orders to survive the closure. Carson estimates that if Olivia does well with to-go orders, the restaurant could maybe earn 30 to 35 percent of typical revenue.

“Right now, we’re going to gather staff and assess everyone’s personal financial situations and see what we can do and for how long. If a week or two turns into six or eight weeks and we find ourselves in 2021, that’s very different than just ‘Let’s get through the holidays or get to the beginning of December,’” Carson says.

Potager in Capitol Hill will be in a similar situation, in that it’ll be reliant on to-go orders and the few tables it has outside. In fact, as soon as co-owner Eileen Warthen heard the news, she moved three indoor tables onto the patio. “We’re not thrilled, but again, we understand the need to make changes,” Warthen says. She, like others in the industry, is frustrated that restaurants continue to be targeted, even though restaurants haven’t been shown to be the source of many outbreaks. “It would be totally understandable for them to shut down indoor anything if there was more concrete proof that restaurants were a hot spot for transfer, which I don’t believe they are.”

Like many in the industry, Potager needs help to survive these operating restrictions, which has decimated its business. “If it was nationwide and all of these small businesses were getting federal help, then I’d be like, ‘Yeah, we can close down for a few weeks because we want to do the right thing and be part of a larger movement.’ But with states and city governments having to make these decisions on their own, without federal help, it’s frustrating. We’re all sort of reeling.”

The earlier 8 p.m. last call is a challenge for Potager, as well. The farm-to-table spot is currently hosting two seatings each night, but if the restaurant has to stop serving at 8 p.m., it may only be able to host one seating—which means that even if the weather is nice enough to serve outside, it will serve only half as many people. “I’m trying to be really positive, but when rain and cold weather come in, no one’s going to be outside,” Warthen says.

Some restaurants invested in winterized outdoor dining options, like enclosed, heated greenhouses, igloos, and tents, but those come with a hefty price tag. The CRA survey reports that on average, it cost local restaurants $17,630 to winterize patios for the cold weather, an amount that many operators don’t have on hand right now. Juan Padro, partner of Culinary Creative (Ash’Kara, Bar Dough, Forget Me Not, Tap & Burger, and others), made that investment.

“Today’s news is not a surprise, unfortunately,” Padro says. “It’s something we have prepared for. We made significant investments in outdoor seating options and re-engineered our menus so they are to-go friendly and offer great value.”

Following the announcement of the latest restrictions, Rita’s Law in Five Points and Brass Tacks near Union Station announced temporary closures as of Friday. “Unfortunately, with cases at an ultimate high and with new regulations, we cannot morally or financially stay open at this time. We will be closed to dine-in but don’t fret, our staff is working hard to come up with a better to-go drink and food menu that we will roll out soon,” stated an announcement posted by Rita’s Law on Instagram.

Brass Tacks is holding a “food fire sale” to run through its inventory before they close on Friday, offering free food items—faves such as burgers, dumplings, and nachos—with the purchase of a draft cocktail.

Arielle Israel, pastry chef and owner of retail/wholesale Black Box Bakery, is looking ahead with a measure of fear. Black Box sends its croissants and other laminated pastries across the city, from Blue Sparrow Coffee in LoHi to Lekker Coffee in RiNo, and Israel worries what will happen to her business if coffee shops are closed during any future shutdowns. “I feel like people don’t think about the next step in the chain. The face [of this crisis] is restaurants, but who supplies those restaurants and how are they affected? Being constantly unsure if you’ll have income coming in or not is stressful. I hope consumers continue to support local restaurants, ordering directly from the restaurant and tipping as much as they can. A lot of people are depending on those tips,” she says.

Regarding the economic hardships the hospitality industry has already experienced, Polis, along with House and Senate Democratic leadership, released a joint statement on Monday evening saying that they are working on ways to get financial help to those that need it. At the Tuesday conference, Polis announced that a special session of the state legislature had been called to hammer out COVID-19 relief funding for those most affected, including the hospitality industry.

“Legislative leaders and the Governor’s office have been having productive conversations on how we can step up to help provide additional relief to Colorado businesses and hardworking families during these challenging times,” the statement says. “Coloradans continue to wait for Congress to act, but we are committed to doing what we can as a state.”

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