When Mayor Michael Hancock announced on March 16 that Denver restaurants would have to close for dine-in service in order to help curb the spread of coronavirus, he initially said the order would be in effect through May 11. In a press conference on Monday, Hancock said the restaurant shutdown — and related social distancing measures — will likely last longer.
“The order will be extended, you can bet on that,” Hancock said in response to a reporter’s question about the social distancing order and the restaurant shutdown, which began March 17.
When restaurants do reopen, they will likely have to do so with drastically reduced capacities and added social distancing protocols.
“I can tell you that many (restaurants) have already started talking and thinking about and putting in place protocols for opening,” Hancock said. “But you can bet that there will be some easing into this. We’re not just going to throw open the doors to restaurants and say, ‘Everybody come.’ ”
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Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday afternoon echoed Hancock’s message at the state level. In a press conference discussing the transition from the stay-at-home order to a “safer-at-home” guidance starting on April 27, Polis reiterated that restaurants would not be among the first businesses to emerge from this shutdown.
“My own goal would be mid-May,” Polis said of allowing restaurants to reopen. Realistically, he said that restaurants would be phased back in with reduced capacity, but there is no specific date nor parameters set in place.
A determination will only be made after a couple weeks of data is made available from the first wave of businesses reopening, Polis went on to explain. That puts the decision closer to mid-May with the understanding that restaurants can’t just reopen then overnight.
“I’m hoping that not just my family but yours can patronize restaurants in Colorado sometime in May,” he said.
Hancock also mentioned the possibility of “rolling” openings that would allow restaurants to gradually increase their capacities from 50% to eventually full capacity, but he acknowledged that a gradual roll-out could pose a financial challenge for some restaurants.
“Some (restaurant owners) may wait until it’s 80% or 90% because of the diminishing returns of their cost of opening,” he said.
Opening with a drastically reduced capacity is an idea that “unfortunately some smaller places won’t be able to entertain,” said Jen Mattioni, co-owner of the restaurant Q House.
After restaurants were closed for dine-in service, Q House quickly switched to takeout only but later closed in order to reconfigure the restaurant’s business plan. Mattioni and her team have been closed altogether for three weeks of the shutdown. Their plan is to start back up with a more streamlined menu as soon as next week.
Now, Mattioni says she’s running numbers for potential financial scenarios that she could have never imagined when she opened the 60-seat restaurant, which employs 15 people.
“I haven’t even really wrapped my head around what a timeline would look like for (re-starting dine-in service),” Mattioni said. “There’s a lot to think about in terms of spacing and capacity and how we can operate in the safest way possible, especially if testing everyone is not an option before reopening.”
Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, says her organization and its members are preparing for whatever a gradual reopening will look like — and for the continued financial toll that will result from it.
Last week, she and various Denver restaurateurs sat on a call with Hancock to discuss possibilities such as incrementally increasing capacity.
“This will be difficult for restaurants financially,” Riggs said. “Many need full capacity to make their business model work. We have been sharing suggestions with local and state officials on what they should consider to help keep restaurants viable as this process unfolds, such as continuing the relaxed alcohol take-out and delivery laws.”
Riggs said she hopes that city and state governments will work closely on a reopening plan when the time is right.
“It will be important for the government to offer high-level guidelines yet be flexible in the way that restaurants comply with specific regulations …” she said. “We’re also hoping for as much notice as possible before the state lifts the stay-at-home order, because restaurants will need time to implement new policies with their staffs as well as place orders for supplies.”
As Mattioni of Q House put it: “We would pretty much more or less be starting from nothing.” But luckily, she said, her staff is “on alert and ready to go back to work whenever that is appropriate for us.”
Whenever that happens, Mattioni says she will continue to weigh the business’ needs while also trying to act responsibly. She has a feeling there will be plenty of time before Q House and other restaurants can operate as usual.
“That seems like it’s months away still,” she said. “Honestly.”
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