Given green light, some Denver restaurant owners wait to reopen indoors under Level Orange

For as many restaurants across Colorado that raced this week to reopen their indoor dining rooms, still many others decided to do so reluctantly — or not at all.

Even in a good year, the worst stretch of restaurant sales starts in January just after the holiday season. But during this first full pandemic winter, and following a lagging second stimulus bill, January promises to be especially hopeless for those struggling to stay in the service industry in 2021.

“In France, the restaurants close the whole month of August,” explained Hamidou Dia, co-owner of Le French in the Denver Tech Center. “So maybe we should learn from our French background and close for the month of January here.”

Hamidou and his wife, Aminata Dia, are just two independent restaurant owners who have reluctantly decided to risk an early January 25% indoor dining reopening in light of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ announcement last week.

Late in the evening on Dec. 30, Polis declared that, starting Monday, all 33 Colorado counties at Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 dial would be moved to Level Orange. That sweeping shift mainly affected business operations indoors, so that restaurants, gyms and cultural institutions could reopen at 25% capacity inside.

But restaurateurs like the Dias and others felt torn. An increase in Colorado restaurant capacity comes just after a new and 50% more infectious COVID-19 strain reached the state, and health officials won’t know for another week at least whether the holidays resulted in a virus spike.

Then there’s the issue of the latest round of funds from the Paycheck Protection Program, which could take weeks to become available to businesses, and in the meantime, restaurants could face another round of tightened restrictions. For public health, financial and personal reasons, these independent restaurant owners don’t take the decision lightly to keep their livelihoods alive.

“I am afraid this shift in public safety levels does not reflect what is happening in the hospitals, or that it is coming too soon or even sending the wrong message, no matter how difficult that is on my own business,” Linda Hampsten Fox said via email Monday evening, as she was preparing to reopen her dining room at The Bindery in Lower Highland the next day.

At Le French, Hamidou Dia said he and his wife almost shut down the restaurant for a month, but they opted to reopen at 25% after Gov. Polis’ announcement just before the end of the year.

“I think it would have been better for us financially to stay closed,” he said.

“And in my head, the stress, too,” Aminata added. “I think it would have been a good time to take a pause and get ready for what’s next.”

The Dias say they are choosing to continue operating at a loss in January only for their staff, who would otherwise be navigating a broken unemployment system, and who were quite shaken, they say, by the second indoor dining shutdown in the fall. But other restaurateurs say they must close for now, regardless of morale.

“The sobering reality is that our small businesses will save more money during this hibernation — paying rent and utilities — than if we were in operation under reduced capacity,” Aileen and Paul Reilly, who own Uptown Denver’s Beast + Bottle and Coperta restaurants, wrote over email.

“To be honest,” they added, “we don’t view 25% capacity as a financial opportunity. We were still struggling at those levels in November. We’re gonna hold tight with our plan and keep hoping (case) numbers go down.”

Gabrielle Andreozzi, 27, has worked as a server at Coperta for more than two years. She said she was surprised by the Reillys decision to close for a couple of months this winter, especially after setting up outdoor greenhouses and learning of the indoor dining allowance.

“I was furloughed with the intent to hire back, same as last shutdown,” she said. “But last time, multiple people were let go altogether, so not being asked to come back weighs heavily on my mind.”

Now Andreozzi is navigating unemployment, with much difficulty, for the second time in a year. She says that in 2020 she made about 40% of her previous year’s income, including restaurant shifts and unemployment combined.

“This second time has been much harder,” Andreozzi said. “I’m bringing in less money and haven’t been able to get accepted for further extensions on things like car payments (and) student loans… My original unemployment has run out and now I’m waiting on pandemic-specific support. In years past I’ve held up to four jobs, two being full-time, so my income was far more substantial than the $15,000 I got last year, pre-tax.”

As Andreozzi applies for jobs, and her employer awaits Paycheck Protection (which took seven weeks to arrive for them in the spring), the Dias are back to serving 25% indoors. Their customers at Le French seem grateful, they say, calling them over to the table to ask how they’re doing, and commenting on the restaurant’s safety protocols.

RELATED: Restaurants should close indoor dining even though it’s devastating

At The Bindery, Hampsten Fox was focused this week on making her restaurant space as safe as possible, with the help of an advanced HVAC system that includes 14 Mitsubishi air units spread across 25-foot ceilings and over a 50-foot wall of doors that open to the outside.

“We are fortunate,” she said. “If our space was different, we would not be reopening.”

But Hampsten Fox thinks that restaurants should be evaluated individually at this level in the pandemic, a process that is still underway in Denver, where Five Star certification process hasn’t yet begun. Under that program, businesses that are certified by the county for advanced health and safety procedures can operate at lower restriction levels and increased capacities.

Restaurants in counties that are now at Level Orange, for example, could be eligible to move to Level Yellow (50% indoor capacity) after the county maintains a “seven-day Orange-Level average incidence trend,” according to the Colorado Dept. of Public Health & Environment.

But at Le French, Hamidou doesn’t see the restaurant increasing capacity to 50% indoors anytime soon, even if they’re allowed. And Hampsten Fox will have to consider any more capacity increases at The Bindery just as seriously, for reasons personal to her and her husband, a Denver physician.

“As my husband risks his life to treat COVID patients, and after the loss of my brother-in-law to COVID this summer, I would want my staff and guests to remain as safe as I would want for my family,” she said. “This is a restaurant and a lot of individuals have worked very hard to make it what it is today, but in the end, it’s just a restaurant.”

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