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'It's Very Grim': Colorado Restaurants, Gyms Brace For Tougher Coronavirus Restrictions

Courtesy of Sancho's Authentic Mexican
A cook at Sancho's Authentic Mexican Food in Boulder prepares dinner plates. The restaurant is one of many now operating under Colorado's Level Red coronavirus restrictions.

The staff at Sancho’s Authentic Mexican Food in Boulder have done everything they can think of to keep customers coming back throughout the pandemic, installing plexiglass barriers between booths and cooking burritos for frontline health care workers.

Shawn Camden, the restaurant’s owner, even dressed up as Elvis Presley and performed outside the windows of nursing home residents this summer. He brought a cart of fresh fried churros to sell along the way.

But now his business faces yet another challenge: A wave of stricter coronavirus restrictions is set to go into effect in many parts of Colorado on Friday, pumping the brakes on economic recovery for some of the state’s hardest-hit businesses, like Sancho’s and other restaurants.

The new “Level Red” restrictions ban indoor dining at restaurants, limit capacity at gyms and offices to 10% and prohibit personal gatherings of any size between separate households. They apply to at least 15 counties, from Boulder and metro Denver to various mountain communities.

“We put a lot of energy into reopening, and invested a lot in renovating our place,” Camden said. “And now we lose all that again. We’re at a little bit of a loss of what to do.”

The changes are a “last resort” attempt to avoid a full shutdown similar to this past spring, public health officials say. For weeks, Colorado’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have grown with few signs of slowing down, putting stress on health care workers.

Rex Bryce, the owner of several restaurants in Steamboat Springs, hoped the state could have avoided more lockdowns. Ahead of the new restrictions, he laid off dozens of staff, fearing income from outdoor dining and delivery orders wouldn’t be enough to sustain his businesses.

“We can function,” he said. “But not profitably.”

Bryce said he has also pulled back spending on building improvement projects and marketing to help balance his books. He worries about his employees, who no longer have expanded unemployment benefits to support them like they did earlier in the pandemic.

“They don’t have the $600 bump now,” he said. “They have nothing to fall back on.”

Courtney Samuel stands inside his Denver gym, Bodies by Perseverance, on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. The business has reduced capacity to 10 visitors at a time due to Colorado's new Level Red coronavirus restrictions.
Matt Bloom
Courtney Samuel stands inside his Denver gym, Bodies by Perseverance, on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. The business has reduced capacity to 10 visitors at a time due to Colorado's new Level Red coronavirus restrictions.

In Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, Courtney Samuel has lowered capacity inside his gym, Bodies by Perseverance, to a maximum of 10 people. The new cap means Samuel spends extra hours designing strict new schedules for customers. Trainers and clients have only a short, 45-minute window for workouts.

“We’ve had to really dramatically add classes and reduce class size,” Samuel said. “From a business standpoint, my payroll is double.”

But with support from the community and grants from local business development groups, he believes he’ll make it through.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “I just don’t want to go through another nine-week closure like this spring. That kind of sucked and it seems like it’s trending towards that.”

Beth Gruitch, who owns several beloved restaurants in downtown Denver, including Rioja and Stoic & Genuine, said she’s been anticipating another round of shutdowns for months.

“We're going to do the best we can,” she said. “We're trying to look at our numbers to see what's the longevity of our savings accounts? And how can we make it through the next month, two months, three months?”

The first round of shut-downs this spring forced Gruitch to permanently close one of her restaurants – Euclid Hall. Over the summer, she purchased tents and heaters – at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars – to ensure the others had a smooth transition to winter outdoor dining.

In September, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released guidelines for outdoor dining structures at restaurants. To Gruitch’s surprise, enclosed tents, like the ones she purchased over the summer, were classified as indoor dining spaces. That means she won’t be able to seat customers in them until Level Red restrictions are lifted.

“We've spent quite a bit of money on those tents and heaters,” Gruitch lamented, “To not be able to utilize those recent purchases to have outdoor dining -- it's kind of the nail in the coffin right now.”

Gruitch is now hoping to expand her take-out and delivery business. Without indoor dining as an option, she estimates she only has about another two months before she’ll have to permanently close more of her businesses, unless more federal or state financial aid is made available.

“It's very grim, very grim,” she said.

An empty restaurant in Larimer Square in Denver on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. Denver is one of 15 counties moving to Level Red coronavirus restrictions on Friday.
Jonathan Parrott
Courtesy Photo
An empty restaurant in Larimer Square in Denver on Thursday, Nov. 19, 2020. Denver is one of 15 counties moving to Level Red coronavirus restrictions on Friday.

Sonia Riggs, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, agrees that restaurants are being unjustly singled out.

“The customer rate of infection (at restaurants) is ridiculously low,” Riggs said. “Restaurants are the ones being punished.”

Riggs’ organization has data showing that the restaurant industry has shed a third of its workforce since the start of the pandemic. The same data suggest the indoor dining ban puts 25% of Colorado restaurants at risk of closing permanently within one month. At three months, 59% are at risk of closing permanently.

“We’re going to start seeing some dramatic changes in what our environment and our neighborhoods look like,” Riggs said. “These primarily small, independent businesses – I think we’re going to see a lot more start to go away.”

In Summit County, public health officials are considering going even further than the state’s Level Red requirements. Amy Wineland, the county’s public health director, said on Thursday short-term rentals and ski areas could see tighter capacity limits starting as soon as this weekend. (The Level Red restrictions do not outline specific requirements for either).

“We’re really worried about Thanksgiving coming up,” Wineland said. “We’re hoping that Coloradans and certainly people here in Summit County heed the new stricter guidelines to prevent gatherings.”

Federal aid that served as a lifeline for many small businesses earlier in the pandemic has run out. Colorado lawmakers are planning to hold a special session within the next two months to discuss a state-level economic stimulus package.

In the meantime, many communities have created temporary grant programs to help restaurants and other businesses struggling from public health restrictions. Sean Camden, the owner of Sancho’s in Boulder, said customers should keep ordering take-out and delivery if they want to see local restaurants survive the winter.

“There's been a lot of support from the state and from the federal government, but most of our funds have run out now,” Camden said. “So now, more than ever, if you want to see your local restaurant that you love so much to stick around, then now is a time to support local restaurants.”

To move out of the state’s new Level Red restrictions, communities need to see a number of metrics improve. They include a declining positivity rate, fewer hospitalizations and under 350 active cases per 100,000 residents.

According to public health officials, residents can help slow the spread of COVID-19 by washing their hands, wearing a mask and reducing social gatherings.

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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