Local leaders working to find solutions for restaurants

Diners stay warm outside at Mountain Tap Brewery as restaurants get creative with the outdoor-only dining restrictions. (Photo by Kari Dequine Harden)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — With the onset of colder weather, tightening restrictions due to COVID-19 and no help from the federal government since the spring, the restaurant industry is in peril.

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 110,000 restaurants nationwide have closed due to the pandemic, and a list of restaurants in the Denver Metro area reveals more than 100 have closed permanently and about 70 temporarily.

“That’s coming here too,” said Patrick Groves, owner of The Tap House in Steamboat Springs. “I don’t think people fully realize just how serious the situation is.”

For many restaurants that operate in ski towns, 60% to 80% of revenue comes in a 13-week window beginning in mid-December, said Scott Engelman, owner of Truffle Pig and Carl’s Tavern in Steamboat and board chairperson of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

“We’ve got everything working against us (right now),” he said.

“We need to see significant federal funding come out soon or we will also be seeing lists of closures,” said Steamboat Springs Chamber CEO Kara Stoller.

While the state dictates the restrictions — and the case numbers dictate what the state does — local leaders are working to find solutions to help restaurants survive a little longer.

“First and foremost we are trying to identify funding, and we have done that successfully,” said Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton.

The grant application period for $786,000 in recently obtained federal money for locally impacted businesses closed Thursday.

There were 209 business applicants, Stoller said, and restaurants and bars are being given some prioritization.

Stoller said the chamber anticipated more applications than available grant money, but she is hoping to be able to offer another round in 2021.

“We all know it is not enough,” Melton said. “The real hope is it’s a bridge for folks until federal funding is forthcoming. We are counting on that. Businesses are counting on that. It’s what is really needed.”

Another ray of hope comes with the potential of a state-run program under which restaurants can receive a certification that will allow them to continue operating at capacity levels higher than the state is allowing based on a county’s disease prevalence and the state’s dial framework.

The program is modeled after one piloted by Mesa County.

For the most part, mitigation efforts that certification would require are already in place in Routt County restaurants, Melton said.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will be announcing a key decision on whether that program will move forward — and what it will look like — next week.

As frustrations from local restaurant owners built up, Engelman reached out to Melton about a month ago to talk about what can be done on a local level to alleviate the pain.

Engelman is well aware of the challenges faced by the restaurant industry but also of the limited power county commissioners have to change the restrictions set by the state.

Melton and Engelman decided together to focus on solutions, and they’ve been working to collaborate with a larger group of stakeholders toward that aim. Melton had a number of conversations with elected and public health officials in Mesa County to learn more.

Melton and Engleman then began engaging in conversations about getting something enacted to provide more consistency across all counties at the state level.

“A program like this is going to be critical before we start seeing mass causalities,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “As if we haven’t already seen enough.”

The state has a draft framework of a program modeled after Mesa County’s Variance Protection Program, which was created earlier in the pandemic and requires restaurants and businesses to obtain a Five Star Certification to ensure they are in compliance with public health orders.

While the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tried to revoke the program when Mesa County moved into level red, Gov. Jared Polis overruled them, allowing the program to remain in place for a limited amount of time.

At Wednesday’s Routt County Board of Commissioners meeting, Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith reported that the state health department was reviewing the program, and it will probably be out for review Dec. 18.

“If enacted, there could be a rollout for the certification process in February,” Smith said. “At present, counties in level red or orange are not eligible for any type of variances.”

Melton and Engelman stress the importance of being ready to go well before the state gives the go ahead.

“We don’t want businesses to have to wait on the county. We are doing our part to be ready as soon as it’s an option,” Melton said.

While thus far the Yampa Valley has seen few, if any, permanent restaurant closures due directly to the pandemic, many are barely hanging on. Any reserves built up during the summer and fall are dwindling quickly.

Asked if he will survive the next few months, Groves said he would not.

“I’ve already been surviving for eight months . . . I’m in debt up to my ears trying to keep this place open,” Groves said.

From his personal experience and talking to industry colleagues, Engelman said revenue is down by about 75% as restaurants try to stay afloat without indoor dining.

Groves, who doesn’t have outdoor seating at his restaurant, said if he has to face the same restrictions next summer as the last, he’ll close his doors.

“I’ve been working 80 hours a week and have not paid myself in months,” he said. It just can’t continue. It’s not supportable.”

The restaurant owners say 25% indoor dining is better than nothing. And of course, every restaurant is impacted differently, depending on their physical space, their location, seasonality and how conducive their menu is for takeout.

Wendy Tucciarone, owner of Mountain Tap Brewery in Steamboat, said her establishment is fortunate with a high ceiling and well-ventilated space with a lot of outdoor seating. They added three gondolas for private and heated outdoor dining and have four fire pit tables. And while not good for the ski season, the unseasonably warm November and December have provided a significant boost, Tucciarone said.

In a business with notoriously thin profit margins, 25% — even 50% capacity, especially without outdoor seating — is not sustainable in the long term, Riggs said.

Not only is the industry feeling sharp economic pain, communities, including those in Routt County, are becoming increasingly divided over the restrictions in place.

Do restaurants bear an unfair brunt of the restrictions?

Are restaurants being unfairly targeted and shouldering an unfair burden of the economic impact wrought by the pandemic-related restrictions?

The consensus among those interviewed for this story is yes.

One possible reason for that is simply that restaurants can be regulated — there are mechanisms in place. That’s not the case with personal gatherings, which data shows as a much larger source of the spread of the virus.

The data on outbreaks does not show restaurants among the biggest contributors, Groves noted.

“Restaurants early on were targeted without much scientific evidence to justify it,” he said.

And Groves points to data from Mesa County showing that even when restaurants were allowed to remain open as cases rose, very few of those new cases could be traced to in-person dining.

And considering patrons spend most of the time seated at their table, Groves doesn’t see other businesses who have been allowed to stay open as having less risk.

“We do see a difference between spending 10 minutes walking through a shop with a mask on and sitting in a restaurant for an hour with a mask off,” Wendy Tucciarone said. “Retail shops are different from restaurants. On the flip side, we do believe that restaurants can operate safely with appropriate precautions. Our business is based on being sanitary, even in non-COVID times. And with other measures such as distancing tables, decreasing contact time between guests and servers, collecting contact tracing information, etc., we do believe we could serve a limited number of guests indoors, safely.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, the commissioners asked for more clarification on outbreaks and if state restrictions have been unnecessarily harsh on restaurants since they seem to be a low cause of transmission.

“I think it is important to understand the setting itself. Indoor dining with masks off for a prolonged period of time is a high-risk setting,” Smith answered. “We need to limit indoor prolonged contact without masks on. There have been studies and we know that the droplets are going to spread and going to spread beyond the table. Plus, indoor spaces don’t have great ventilation.”

But even if it is based in data, Melton said restaurants are bearing an unfair share of the burden in terms of restrictions and economic pain.

“It’s absolutely not fair,” Melton said, but she added she doesn’t think operating in defiance of state restrictions will benefit anyone.

The state is actively revoking business and liquor licenses of some of the restaurants found to be in violation in other counties.

“We need to spend our energy helping local businesses and employers and figure out how to operate within the restrictions put in place,” Melton said.

The frustration in the community is largely justified, she said. However, she believes what is actually productive is for people such as her and Engelman to team up and find solutions.

Along with about 100 other chambers across the region, Stoller is working to push elected officials to take action and make additional federal dollars available in support to support small businesses and individuals.

“The hope is that if we can hang on through the next six months, we should be able to start turning a corner,” Stoller said. “But these are going to be a really hard six months to get through.”

Of the fractured opinions in the community, Stoller notes that passion is one of Steamboat’s attributes.

“Everyone wants what is best for the community, but everyone has different thoughts on how we get there,” she said. “It’s important for all of us to remember we are all trying to do our best and support each other as best as possible.”

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