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Restaurants Not Feeling Much Relief, Even As Some Counties Loosen COVID-19 Restrictions

Rae Solomon / KUNC

Last week, Gov. Jared Polis downgraded the 33 Colorado counties that were classified as Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 status dial to Level Orange. On social media, Polis said he was trying to walk the difficult line between the public health crisis and the economic crisis. But the limited loosening of restrictions will not be enough to provide meaningful relief to many restaurant owners in Northern Colorado.

The move to Level Orange means restrictions in those counties were loosened overnight — regardless of whether individual counties’ COVID-19 metrics met the state’s own guidelines for the downgrade. Polis justified the action citing a sustained statewide decline in the number of new cases and ample availability of ICU bed capacity.

For some businesses in the affected counties, the change was celebrated. Gyms, for instance, can now operate at a slightly increased capacity, allowing them to start inching towards recovery.

But not all businesses will benefit evenly, according to John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce. “It's a mixed bag,” he said. “For restaurants, not all of them are seeing this as the indication that they should reopen.”

Under Level Red restrictions, indoor dining at restaurants was prohibited. Outdoor dining was still permitted, but cold weather and other restrictions had many restauranteurs opting to offer takeout and delivery only.

This was the case for Aileen Reilly, who owns Coperta and Beast and Bottle in Denver’s Uptown neighborhood. At first, she wanted to continue outdoor service under Level Red, but soon found that to be untenable.

Just before Christmas, Reilly suspended all service at both restaurants and made the decision to wait out the winter in restaurant hibernation.

“We were losing so much money,” Reilly explained. “I mean, my business partners really sat down and kind of did the math and we were going to be losing less money if we just paid our rent and utilities than we would if we were trying to remain operational.”

Hibernating Restaurant
Rae Solomon / KUNC
Aileen Reilly temporarily shut down her Denver restaurant, Coperta, to save money.

She was already down to only about a quarter of her original staff, but the temporary shutdown forced her to furlough the small, skeleton crew that remained.

The move to Level Orange restores indoor dining capacity — but only up to 25%. Reilly says that hasn’t change her calculations.

“We were struggling at 25 percent, as well,” she said, “it wasn't a lot more seating for us.”

Closing temporarily is a business decision that gives her operation the best chance of survival. “We just know come out of it stronger, not trying to not trying to operate when we're just not getting the revenue that is needed,” Reilly said.

On the other hand, Jay Elowsky — better known as Boulder’s “Pasta Jay” — was excited to reopen his doors to indoor dining and resumed table service at his Italian eatery as soon as the change went into effect.

“You’re looking for that glimmer of hope,” he said, adding that the first week of indoor dining has been busy.

The move is good for his staff. Reopening even limited indoor dining has allowed Elowsky to increase their hours by about 30%.

But, a 25% capacity limit is not a long-term solution. At that level, Elowsky can’t even hope to break even. “You lose less. You’re living on less lines of credit,” he said.

Christine Ruch, chef and owner of Fresh Thymes, a small counter-service eatery in Boulder, has a similar story. Her main business concern right now is trying to slow the speed at which she’s losing money.

“Any of these restaurants are using their cushion in order to stay in business right now. And then what? Then you close and then you've used all of your savings,” she said, explaining her frustrations.

Fresh Thymes has offered to-go orders only since November, but Ruch has considered shutting down temporarily. “That's the reason why these restaurants are putting a pause on operations because they're wanting to conserve as much cash as possible,” she said.

Five-star certification

Some business owners have been optimistic about a tool introduced by the state public health department called the 5-star certification program. It authorizes individual counties to loosen capacity restrictions for some local businesses. If they can show that they’re meeting enhanced safety standards, those businesses can act as if they are one level up from where the county is on the COVID-19 status dial. So, for instance, a certified business in a red-level county could use orange-level restrictions, and so on.

Officials in Boulder are in the process of applying for state approval of a 5-star program there. Larimer County has had its 5-star certification — locally known as “Level Up” — since just before Christmas. When Larimer County moved to Level Orange, the business community was elated by the idea that certified businesses would be able to “level up” to yellow restrictions. For restaurants and other businesses, that would have meant capacity limits could increase to 50%.

But most of the 33 counties re-designated as Level Orange — including Larimer — do not actually meet the state’s metrics for that level. 5-star certification in those counties will not allow them to level up until their numbers are in line with the improved metrics for at least seven days.

As of this week, Broomfield County had the sole 5-star certification program in the state allowed to operate with Level Yellow restrictions.

Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Ann Hutchinson said she was disappointed to learn about new conditions placed on their 5-star status last week. But she pointed out that even a slight increase in business capacity was a step in the right direction.

“Level Red is very difficult on business,” she said. “The numbers just don't make sense. Anything we could do to get out of that red level and begin to reopen gives business that chance to potentially survive.”

Looking for federal relief

In Denver, where metrics remain well above orange levels, and the county was just approved for its own 5-star certification program, Aileen Reilly says she probably couldn’t be enticed to reopen her two establishments this winter even if capacity was increased to 50%.

“We're looking at about eight or nine weeks — sometime in March is kind of when we're targeting a reopening right now,” Reilly said. She’s hopeful for warmer weather by then and anticipates some vaccine-fueled consumer confidence.

But even more importantly, that eight to nine-week timeframe is about how long she estimates it will take to get another round of Paycheck Protection Program money from the latest federal stimulus package. Even more than modest easing of capacity restrictions, her business — like many others — will need cash relief to pull through this pandemic.

Updated: January 14, 2021 at 1:42 PM MST
This story has been updated to reflect Denver's approval for the 5-star certification program on Jan. 14, 2021.
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