The latest efforts to control a significant increase in COVID-19 cases in Denver is sad news for the local restaurant community. The city’s move to the Safer at Home Level 3 Stage, as ordered earlier today by the state of Colorado, cuts the in-person, inside dining capacity of restaurants and bars in half yet again. The new restrictions mean that culinary establishments can only operate at 25 percent of typical capacity inside their dining rooms, or serve 50 or fewer people, whichever number is smaller. Last call is also pushed up to 10 p.m., versus the previous 11 p.m. Outdoor dining areas, as long as they follow social distancing and sanitization rules, fall outside the new restrictions and may remain open. 

The tightened indoor dining restrictions, which were announced by Mayor Hancock at a press conference this morning, went into effect immediately. Hancock said that from what he’s seen and experienced, restaurants have been following the prescribed safety course and have done what’s necessary to keep people safe in their spaces. Unfortunately, those same small businesses working hard to keep their guests safe—and spending a lot of money in the process—are significantly impacted by the actions of those who are not following restrictions, leading to the spread of the virus.

“I, for one, have continued to meet people at restaurants within the protocols…We’ve got to celebrate what our restaurants have done. And they are not targeted [by the new restrictions]. I believe they are impacted by things out of their control, just like we all are,” Hancock said.

Katie Lazor, director of EatDenver, a nonprofit that supports and advocates for local independent restaurants, says the new restrictions are a reminder to review the data before making quick judgments about how restaurants contribute to outbreaks. “Denver restaurants represent less than 1 percent of outbreak cases in the city since March. After looking at that data, restaurants have really done an excellent job at complying and keeping people safe, and when outbreaks do happen, they’ve done an amazing job at containing them relative to other industries.”

Lazor is concerned about the long-term effects of the capacity limits, specifically what might happen when people are less able to gather in restaurants, which are highly regulated settings with a track record of successfully containing the virus. “Are people instead gathering in private, unregulated settings with a higher risk of spread? That’s the question no one really knows the answer to. At this point, the regulated setting at a lower risk seems like a very small part of the problem.”

Betsy and Sean Workman, who own the Hornet and Acova Restaurant, got to work as soon as they heard the news. “While we didn’t know when further restrictions might come, we have been prepared for this potential. I have a plan we’ll start implementing today to keep everyone safe and keep my team members employed,” Betsy says.

Dana Rodriguez. Photo by Matt Nager

The Workmans, who employ 52 people across their two restaurants, will keep the Hornet running at 25 percent capacity and offer four seatings a night at Acova Restaurant. Reservations are recommended at Acova, and there’s also a new hour and a half time limit for each table. “The patio will continue to stay open if it’s 50 degrees or warmer. We’re really all in survival mode,” Betsy says.

When Dana Rodriguez, chef and co-owner of Work & Class and Super Mega Bien in RiNo, heard the news, she thought for sure that she and her partners, Tony Maciag and Tabatha Knop, would need to close Work & Class altogether until the capacity allowances return to 50 percent. “At 25 percent, we can only seat four tables in that dining room,” Rodriguez says. “It doesn’t make any sense to stay open with numbers like that.” However, as the day progressed, the trio decided to stick it out at one-quarter capacity at both restaurants, at least through the election next week, and then reconvene to figure out a way forward. “We want to see how long we can run it and keep our staff employed,” she says.

To move back to the Safer at Home Level 2 Stage, under which restaurants can welcome guests up to 50 percent of typical capacity, Hancock said the city must reduce its rates of positivity, hospitalization, and average daily cases and hold those numbers for two weeks. If cases continue to spike, stay-at-home orders similar to what was put in place in March may be reinstated in the coming weeks, which Lazor says could be devastating to the local economy. 

Overall, people should know that their actions, even if it’s a private gathering, can affect whether their favorite restaurant or retail business or salon or gym can survive COVID, and survive the winter. It’s really as black and white as that,” she says.

Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia Kaowthumrong
Patricia joined the 5280 staff in July 2019 and is thrilled to oversee all of the magazine’s dining coverage. Follow her food reporting adventures on Instagram @whatispattyeating.