“It’s kind of crazy that we’re still talking about this,” says Jesus Silva, chef-owner of various food stalls at Stanley Marketplace and the Golden Mill. But yes, we are still talking about COVID and likely will be for a while. Most businesses are still open, and if we want them to stay that way through fall and winter as the Delta variant of the coronavirus rages, there are a few things restaurant diners can do to stop the spread and all get along in the process.

Some restaurants are bringing back mask mandates, while others are requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test before showing you to your table. Still, these are the minority; a survey of 148 restaurants by the Colorado Restaurant Association found that just 23 percent of establishments have mask, vaccine, or testing requirements in place for diners. Nearly three-quarters plan to keep things on the honor system until mandated to do otherwise.

We asked seven restaurant owners what diners can do to keep everyone safe and make eating out the fun, enjoyable experience it should be. Here’s how you can help.

1. Get vaccinated.
This may be obvious to some, but getting vaccinated is the most effective way to fight the virus. While most restaurants aren’t yet requiring their employees to require proof of vaccination from diners, some are moving in that direction. Bonanno Concepts (Mizuna, Osteria Marco, Denver Milk Market, and others) said all of their workers will be vaccinated by September 30, and it’s asking that diners be fully vaccinated, too. (Although they won’t be asking to see your cards.) “Be kind and get vaccinated,” Frank Bonanno says. “If not vaccinated, please be kind anyway.”

2. Wear a mask if you’re asked.
Even if you’re vaccinated (or thought we were over this four months ago), if a restaurant asks you to wear a mask, just put it on. “We have to first take care of the people who work for us, and then take care of everyone in the restaurant,” Silva says. He supports mask mandates but says he and his fellow tenants of the Golden Mill are waiting for clear guidance from the government before implementing any new policies. “What we really need is real information,” he says. “Real guidance. At this point it’s so political. Somebody needs to be the leader and come out with real guidance.”

3. Be patient.
“Please go in with the understanding that we are all understaffed,” says Joshua Pollack, owner of Bridge & Tunnel Restaurant Group (Rosenberg’s Bagels & Delicatessen, Lou’s Italian Specialties, and others). “We’re currently operating at about 75 to 80 percent labor capacity across all locations and there isn’t a restaurant in Denver that’s not feeling the squeeze. Even if the dining room doesn’t look crowded, the last year and a half has trained customers to order online, so we’re often busier than you think.”

The smoky air isn’t helping staffing either. Silva is being ultra-vigilant about sending workers experiencing any symptoms to get tested for COVID, and with the smoke exacerbating allergies and other respiratory issues, he’s down even more workers.

4. If there’s a problem, talk to the manager or owner directly.
If you truly had a bad experience, talk to the manager on duty or another representative of the restaurant before blasting your complaints on social media. “All parties have the best intentions, but when it comes to a positive change, it must be communicated appropriately,” says Amy Newman and Brice Young, co-owners of Louisville’s Precision Pours. If your concern is with a COVID-related policy, remember that owners are in a lose-lose situation here. With people feeling so strongly about both sides of the mask/vaccine debate, owners are bound to disappoint someone.

5. Be ready to pay more.
You may have noticed an increase in prices at the grocery store, and restaurants are feeling the sticker shock too. “Because of COVID repercussions, food is more expensive for us to buy,” says Mandy Smith, co-owner of Crock Spot. “And a lot of things are back ordered. If pricing for your favorite dish goes up, there’s a reason why. Or if you can’t get something at a restaurant, there’s a reason why. There’s just a shortage.”

Pollack agrees, estimating that his restaurants’ protein and fish costs have risen 40 percent recently. “Pretty much everything in the food and beverage industry has increased in price. The buck can’t stop with the small businesses that are already operating within tight margins. Please remember that we’re all in this together,” Pollack says.

6. Just be, you know, nice.
“Honestly those two things [wearing a mask and getting vaccinated] are huge. But additionally, be kind and flexible if restaurants’ rules change. We’re trying really hard not to get shut down again,” says Erika Thomas, co-owner of High Point Creamery and the soon-to-open Eiskaffee. Keep in mind that the people working at restaurants may be doing double duty and learning new positions to fill in for the lack of employees right now.

“The overriding theme is to be kind and patient,” Smith says. “Be mindful of the challenges your restaurants are facing and know we’re doing our best.”

Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.