Community support key for restaurants as new restrictions go into place |

Community support key for restaurants as new restrictions go into place

Restaurants were able to rebound this summer thanks to outdoor dining space and lower COVID-19 case counts. With the arrival of winter came rising case numbers that led the state to elevate Routt County to level red, which closes the doors of local restaurants Friday and requires them to return to the takeout business models that kept them afloat last spring. (File photo)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In normal times, restaurant owner Phil Armstrong would be preparing for the weekend rush, gearing up for a busy Thanksgiving holiday and looking forward to the upcoming ski season.

But on Thursday, Armstrong, who owns Table 79, Periodic Table and Aurum Food and Wine in Steamboat Springs as well as Aurum in Breckenridge, was doing his best to conceal his anger.

“We have to call 108 people just at Aurum Steamboat, 110 at Aurum Breckenridge and 60 at Table79,” Armstrong said. ”It’s like hundreds of people that we have to call and cancel their reservations.“

It’s the latest blow Armstrong and other Steamboat restaurant owners have had to weather since COVID-19 turned the world upside down in March. The pandemic and accompanying public health orders forced restaurants to quickly pivot to a takeout business model last spring.

Restaurants celebrated when they reopened their doors in May, and most enjoyed a vibrant summer. A spike in COVID-19 cases this month has led to a series of state health orders, elevating Routt County from level orange to level red, which means restaurants will close to indoor dining at 5 p.m. Friday.

“You don’t even want to know, like, the kind of rage that I have felt in the last 48 hours,” Armstrong said. “It’s having someone tell you that your livelihood is just completely shut down, and it’s akin to somebody coming after your family.

“It’s absolutely absurd,” Armstrong continued. “I mean there are so many things about this that really don’t make any sense. There are currently no restrictions on any of the lodging, which means the tourists are going to be coming here regardless. We still have up to 20 kids in a classroom, and we still have people coming here to stay in homes. I just don’t understand why people can’t have dinner.”

It’s frustrating for Armstrong who has worked to get in front of the pandemic. He offered pickup when the doors were closed in the spring, and as winter approached, he invested $30,000 into four yurts to increase his seating. He has stuck to the rules health officials have put in place, including requiring staff to wear masks, increasing his sanitation practices and abiding by capacity restrictions.

“There’s no getting around it; these new restrictions are going to be catastrophic for this industry. According to our most recent survey, we could lose 24% of the restaurants in counties entering this new severe risk level in less than a month,” Colorado Restaurant Association CEO Sonia Riggs said. “This feels like an especially difficult blow considering there is little evidence tying dining to surging cases — most spread is happening in private gatherings.”

She said there needs to be significant support for restaurants if they are to survive.

“We have asked the state to pass meaningful relief for this industry as quickly as they can, and we ask local governments to continue to support local restaurants with grants and loans, rent and mortgage assistance and reduced regulatory costs,” Riggs said. “We ask the public to avoid private gatherings, to wear masks and to wash hands to get these numbers down as quickly as possible so we can reopen.”

She also encouraged communities to order takeout or have food delivered while restaurants are unable to welcome diners.

“Consider what you’d lose if you lost your favorite restaurants,” Riggs said. “Understand that they are on the brink. They need your help to get through.”

Seann Conway, co-owner of the Ore House at the Pine Grove and Freshies, was doing his best to take the new restrictions in stride.

“It’s difficult, to say the least, but we’ve done it once already, and fortunately, we are in a better position to navigate our way now,” Conway said.

He said he hopes the community will once again embrace pickup and delivery and support local restaurants.

“Currently, we will keep the same operating hours, and then we will adjust hours based on demand,” Conway said. “We might open up earlier, we might close earlier and we are implementing delivery in both locations. We’re going to use our current staff to assist in delivery to keep them employed.”

Rex Brice, who owns Rex’s Family of Restaurants, said the decision to shutdown restaurants again was disappointing but not unexpected.

“We had planned for this and somewhat expected it,” Brice said. “We’ll move to takeout and delivery at the restaurants, which is easier at some and more natural than it is for others.”

Brice said he would like to see a little more effort coming from county officials when it comes to finding creative solutions to assist businesses and thinking through the process before the public health orders are issued.

“Judging by my email inbox and the telephone calls that I’ve received, there is a fundamental misunderstanding in the public about that interrelationship between state and local public health orders,” said Routt County Commissioner Tim Corrigan. “The movement of Routt County from level orange to level red was a decision that was made by the CDPHE (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment). It was not a local decision.”

Corrigan said it is confusing because the county also issues public health orders that often mirror what the state does. He said the county is required to follow those orders but often issues their own in an effort to have more control when those measures are changed and to be able to enforce them locally.

Either way, he said the country is sympathetic to the challenges restaurants are facing.

“Of all the industries that have been damaged by these regulations, the restaurants are the ones that are taking it on the chin,” Corrigan said. “My heart goes out to these businesses.”

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