As of this week, restaurants in Denver and many surrounding counties are allowed to remove their mask mandates, take away distancing requirements and return to full capacity under the latest Level Clear guidelines.

But before diners cast aside their face coverings, or walk into a restaurant expecting a seat, some business owners and their staffs have a message for them: We’re not in the clear just yet.

“We actually haven’t changed any (COVID-19 rules), and I doubt we will for a bit,” said Austin Carson, who co-owns the Italian Restaurant Olivia in Denver’s Washington Park.

He’s not alone in the sentiment. A week into Level Clear, many restaurants are still opting out of some, if not all, of the state’s and counties’ eased COVID-19 restrictions. They’re keeping 6 feet of distance between tables, or requiring masks upon arrival and whenever customers are not seated to eat.

And they’re making sure employees are still masked while preparing food and interacting with guests.

“Requiring staff to still wear masks is partially for their comfort and safety, but also for those patrons who do still wear them, to not feel ostracized,” said Katie Robbins, co-owner of Uncorked Kitchen & Wine Bar in Centennial.

The reasons for keeping up stricter guidelines than those enforced by the city and state are complicated, according to owners like Robbins and Carson. On the one hand, restaurants are desperate for cash after more than a year of closures, reduced capacities and takeout-only service.

Colorado restaurants lost a total of $3 billion in 2020, The Colorado Restaurant Association reports.

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

“We are a Mask Friendly Business” sign at Uncorked Kitchen & Wine Bar in Centennial, Colorado on Friday, May 21, 2021. 

On the other hand, restaurants are historically short on staff just as they’ve got the green light to reopen completely and try to earn some money back. More than 90% of Colorado restaurants report having trouble hiring back staff in April and May, according to the CRA.

Add to that employees who are not fully vaccinated, or workers with kids at home who still don’t qualify for shots, and for many, the reasons to continue limited seating and mask policies outweigh the reasons to let up.

“We think it’s kind of too soon, and I’d like to see a higher vaccination rate,” Eileen Warthen, who co-owns Potager in Capitol Hill, said plainly.

When Warthen and her team found out about the move to Level Clear, they were caught off guard. Getting the restaurant back to full capacity takes money and maneuvering that they haven’t had time to figure out yet.

“It will help (the business) tremendously when we can get operations back to normal levels,” Warthen said. “But I’m not going to give poor service, and I’m not going to let the quality of the restaurant suffer.”

The way these restaurants balance customers’ expectations with their own lingering pandemic limitations varies from business to business.

At Potager, Warthen and team are asking diners to make reservations when they can, they’re keeping tables 6 feet apart and handing out disposable masks for diners who walk in without one on hand.

Restaurant Olivia takes those rules a step further, requiring reservations still. And Carson’s wife and co-owner, Heather Morrison, calls every name on the books beforehand to confirm the reservation while taking a moment to explain the restaurant’s COVID-19 policies still in place.

“It really isn’t that big of a deal,” Carson said. “We make sure we disassociate any political underpinnings or anything like that. It’s just us being particularly cautious.”

“On a personal level,” he added, “we’ve got a 10-year-old at home who can’t get vaccinated.”

Uncorked has reopened its wine bar seating as of this week, declaring itself “100% mask friendly” in an email to diners that lays out the latest policy changes. While limited capacity and hours are still in place, the restaurant stops short of requiring face coverings anymore for those coming to eat.

Though, as of now, any children participating in Uncorked’s summer cooking camps will wear masks, in accordance with the latest school guidance, Robbins explained. She lamented that this exact combination of rules for a business that operates as both a restaurant and a cooking school was particularly hard to define.

“For the last 14 months, we’ve been following the guidance that was provided for us (by government officials),” Robbins said. “So to have the script completely flipped and put 100% on us was very challenging.”

“It doesn’t do anybody any good to continue to be in a gray area,” she added.

So restaurants like these will make their own rules for the next couple of weeks, their owners expect, while keeping an eye on vaccination and case rates across the state. So far, just over half of Colorado adults have been fully vaccinated, and new COVID-19 cases as of last week dropped to 7,009, a low last seen in late March.