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Reopening restaurants next month is too risky, owners say

Colorado's food businesses need economic help, but not at the cost of their employee and customer health, restaurateurs say

Lindsay Curtis, left, Emma Zika, right, enjoy dishes at The Preservery with their friends on Jan. 18. The Preservery co-owner Whitney Ariss is one of many Colorado restaurateurs concerned with the impplications of re-opening her restaurant during coronavirus.
Lindsay Curtis, left, Emma Zika, right, enjoy dishes at The Preservery with their friends on Jan. 18. The Preservery co-owner Whitney Ariss is one of many Colorado restaurateurs concerned with the impplications of re-opening her restaurant during coronavirus.

Six weeks into the shutdown, one in five Colorado restaurants now say they will close permanently by the end of May if they’re not able to reopen for regular business, the Colorado Restaurant Association reported this week.

On Tuesday, the CRA released results from its latest member survey, in which 200 responding restaurant owners say they have lost on average 76% of their sales. And of those who applied for Paycheck Protection, 85% have not received it yet.

But as May quickly approaches and Colorado’s stay-at-home order comes to an end, those numbers are overshadowed by a growing concern across Denver and the state: Many restaurateurs say that, business woes aside, they just don’t feel comfortable reopening their dining rooms yet.

As the first wave of COVID-19 cases subsides, business owners are considering the longer-term costs of infecting themselves, their workers and their customers in the event of a second wave of the virus.

“Today, as coronavirus cases in the U.S. near their peak and the national conversation turns toward reopening, the measures we took to protect ourselves, our employees and our guests are under threat,” Nelson Harvey and Caroline Glover wrote in The Denver Post on Wednesday about their Aurora restaurant, Annette.

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“Through takeout and delivery, we are earning about 50% of our normal revenues,” Glover and Harvey said. “Why would we put ourselves at risk just to reopen our dining room at half capacity and earn the same amount?”

In press conferences earlier this week, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis brought up a phased reopening of restaurants, with reduced seating capacity, that could start as soon as mid-May. When initially announced in March, the shutdown was set to expire on May 11, just shy of two months.

While one-on-one services, such as haircuts and dental exams, will resume earlier, larger group activities like dining out will have to wait, Polis clarified on Wednesday. Just how much later is still anyone’s guess.

Restaurateurs like Glover and Harvey are asking for widespread testing before they reopen to keep their employees, customers and businesses safe.

“People will always try to sue restaurants,” Glover said when asked about any concerns over business liability. “But I couldn’t imagine there would be much a leg to stand on if we don’t do more adequate testing and contact tracing.”

This week, Eagle County petitioned Polis to ease restrictions on the stay-at-home order and restart the economy. Restaurateur Chris Schmidt, who owns the Craftsman sandwich and beer shop in Edwards, said he and fellow restaurant owners are looking to one another for guidance before making any decisions.

“I would rather just continue doing curbside; it’s the safer alternative,” Schmidt said, considering the effects of reopening dine-in service in some form over the next month. “I don’t think (re-opening) is setting up restaurants for good hospitality and safe practices. … I think we all kind of have the mindset of hopefully mid- to late-June we can be operating at full capacity again.”

Shmidt says he’s most worried about attempting to control customers in the restaurant through distancing and other restrictions. And Denver restaurateur Tommy Lee agrees that customers, rather than staff, will keep his restaurants closed.

Remember when: Denver chefs Tommy Lee (right) and Frank Bonanno dine with Graham Elliot, Tom Colicchio and the rest of the “Top Chef” Season 15 cast at the Colorado Governor’s Mansion in 2018.

At Lee’s three locations of Hop Alley and Uncle ramen, he says his teams have adjusted well to takeout and would have difficulty safely coordinating any partial dine-in option at the same time.

“We can do everything to protect ourselves, but once you bring in the general public, that conversation becomes gray,” he said. “Does it become a pre-order situation where the customer has to order (ahead) to reduce contact? It would have to be reservation-only; no one can be waiting around and you have a finite time to dine.”

Add these restrictions to the fears of the public, who can now watch simulations of coronavirus spreading in spaces such as restaurants, or see the path of the pathogen traced back genetically to every place it has touched, and dining out normally again seems a long way off.

“People are going to be nervous, people are going to be scared, and rightly so,” Whitney Ariss, who owns The Preservery, told The Denver Post. “I have confidence that we will always need to go out to eat. And I don’t know what that’s going to look like.”

Before opening, Ariss and Lee agree that restaurants need more government funding, rent and tax relief and other aid measures in addition to the eight weeks that Paycheck Protection provides. As of this week, Harvey and Glover, Lee and Shmidt had received their Paycheck Protection money while Ariss had not.

A common concern from restaurant owners who did receive that funding is that they’ll just have to lay off their staff once again after two months.

Whitney and Obe Ariss own The Preservery restaurant in Denver.

“A big, big part of why this is hitting the restaurant industry so hard,” Ariss said, “is because the labor model is so broken and it’s so costly to run a restaurant. And people still — most Americans expect food to be easy and quick and cheap.

“(It’s) the notion that we’re in this sort of class now of essential workers and yet are just … kind of looked down upon,” she said.

A bill approved by the Senate to add $484 billion to the stimulus fund for small businesses is set to be voted on by the House on Thursday. Ariss and other small restaurant owners learned last week as Paycheck Protection funding ran out that some national chain restaurants had been among the first to receive their loans.

The Preservery, Ariss says, is down to just 10-20% of its February sales as it heads into the typically busier spring and summer months.

“Most restaurants keep just enough cash on hand to operate for 15 days, so the costs of reopening — from paying vendors to restocking shelves to rehiring employees — are nearly insurmountable,” Annette’s Harvey and Glover wrote in The Denver Post.

“We might break even over three restaurants, which is all I can ask for at this point,” Lee said.

At this point, a few days after receiving his eight-week safety net and hiring back employees for work that hardly exists, Lee stopped to ask a larger, less pressing question, though he doesn’t have an answer for it yet. No one does.

“Currently, the industry is in survival mode,” Lee said, “financial survival, job survival, business survival, even the food is basically for sustenance (and) survival.

“Even though restaurants are essential as a form of food, at (their) core, restaurants are entertainment,” he added. “And if you’re sitting 10 feet from another table, your server is wearing a mask and you only have one hour to dine because the next table is showing up … is it even fun anymore? If no one wants to dine out anyway, what’s the point of having a dining room?”

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