Facing Tough Indoor Restrictions, Colorado Restaurants Take Dining To The Streets
After rearranging the tables inside his downtown Loveland restaurant to be more socially distant, Jim Edwards was left with a depressing number. Sales were still down more than 25% from the same time last year. In an industry with razor-thin margins, that was unacceptable.
Then came a surprise: The city announced it would close downtown streets to cars every weekend from July through September. The plan let him expand outdoors, where local health restrictions were more lax.
With the additional space, Edwards added 10 more tables during the weekend dinner rush. He also applied for a special liquor license, so he could host a new monthly wine club on top of where three parking spaces used to be. More than 30 people joined during the club’s first meeting last Saturday, he said.
“It’s very helpful,” Edwards, the owner of Door 222, said. “When the sun goes down, it seems like people just want to be outside in Colorado.”
Using concrete barriers, picket fences or any other material they can get their hands on, Colorado’s restaurants have found a new way to survive one of the most difficult business environments in recent memory. With blessings from local governments, they’ve taken over city streets, parking lots and other public spaces. Restaurant owners say the expansions allow them to increase sales volume without breaking strict public health rules around in-person dining.
For some, street expansion has meant the difference between staying afloat through the summer or shutting down for good, Edwards said.
Along with tourism and hospitality, Colorado’s food service sector has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. More food service workers are applying for unemployment benefits than nearly any other industry. This spring, the Colorado Restaurant Association estimated at least 400 restaurants in the state had closed permanently due to coronavirus-related restrictions.
“Sadly, we now think that figure is way too low,” said Laura Shrunk, a spokeswoman for CRA, recently told KUNC.
In late May, Gov. Jared Polis gave restaurants the go-ahead to operate up to 50% of their indoor dining space or 50 people, whichever was fewer people. Employees were required to wear masks. Tables needed to be at least six feet apart.
Outside dining, however, had fewer restrictions. Individual party sizes were capped at eight people or fewer, but the overall number of outdoor customers had no limit as long as tables were spaced far enough apart.
In Greeley, city leaders responded by shutting down the 8th and 9th Street plazas to cars so downtown restaurants could expand outdoors. The city council also passed a temporary open consumption ordinance to encourage diners to visit multiple businesses in the area.
Bianca Fisher, executive director of the Greeley Downtown Development Authority, said local business owners also weighed in on the plan, which went into effect on July 1.
“It’s been really inspiring to see the way people have banded together in a horribly frustrating time,” she said. “It’s a little too early to say what the total impact is, but it’s a great opportunity.”
Some downtown bars, which Gov. Polis ordered to close again several weeks ago, seized the opportunity to pivot their business models. Patrick’s Irish Pub added several food items to its menu, reclassifying itself as a restaurant.
Owner Greg Farnsworth bought several tables and chairs on Facebook Marketplace and built a new sidewalk patio from scratch, opening space for an extra dozen or so people.
The city also paid for concrete jersey barriers to help extend the sidewalk around the restaurant’s new dining area to make sure pedestrians could still get by.
“It was a really fast process,” Farnsworth said.
While it hasn’t shut down entire streets, Fort Collins has allowed businesses to expand into public parking spaces. Since launching in June, the city’s patio extension program has approved 55 applications.
“It’s made a huge impact on the amount of sales (restaurants) have been able to have,” said Chad Crager, director of the city’s infrastructure services. “People just feel more comfortable eating outdoors.”
Based on conversations with local business owners, the city doesn’t plan to completely shut down any streets to cars at this point. But it’s a possibility if sentiment in the business community shifts, he said.
“Some people felt that they still wanted vehicles to go by and see their restaurant,” Crager said.
While a helpful part of recovery, expanding outdoors alone won’t be enough to help all restaurants recover, said SeonAh Kendall, senior manager of economic health for the city. Kendall is also leading Fort Collins’ small business COVID-19 recovery efforts.
“Consumer confidence returning is going to be key,” she said. “But it’s also going to be peace of mind for businesses around the reopening process.”
There’s still a lot of uncertainty around whether restaurants will be able to stay open through the rest of the year, Kendall said. Other states, like California and Texas, have already rolled back their reopening plans due to a spike in coronavirus cases.
Colorado has seen a slight uptick, but not as severe as other parts of the country.
“We’re really pushing face covering, physical distancing, washing hands,” Kendall said. “We’re also starting to look at the fall, when the weather changes and things go back inside. What do we do then?”
Abby Powell, events manager with Loveland’s downtown development authority, echoed those concerns.
“As soon as we’re into the phase when people don’t want to sit out, the weather’s too cold, we’re past that time … we’re going to have to figure out how to make sure people do come back,” she said.
Meanwhile, customers say they’re looking for more creative ways to support local businesses without spending time indoors.
Patrons of Door 222’s wine tasting pulled down their face masks as they moved from table to table. Loveland resident Katherine Rowe took a sip of red wine.
“It’s amazing,” she said, before ordering a bottle to go.
Rowe and her husband were running errands when they saw the downtown street barriers and wandered over.
It was one of the first times they’ve done something like this since the pandemic began. And doing it outside, Rowe said, was more comfortable than inside a busy restaurant.
“It’s fun to be out and look at how everyone’s being really creative,” Rowe said. “I think that makes you want to be in their corner, fighting for them. Because it’s been a crazy year.”
Owner Jim Edwards said it was the busiest he’d seen the restaurant all summer.
“It’s 4 o'clock in the afternoon and we have 20 people here already,” he said. “It's a way that we're trying to evolve as a restaurant to try to generate some more business in these difficult times.”
Edwards poured a glass of wine for another customer and smiled.
For the meantime, he said, it seemed business was turning around.