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Restaurants face even more uncertainty with new COVID-19 restrictions

There is more elbow room inside businesses like Back Door Grill after Routt County was moved to Level Orange earlier this week. However, owner David Eliason, who owns How Ya Doin Pizza N Eatz, Back Door Grill and O’Neil’s Tavern & Grill along with his wife, Brandi, said that the restrictions make it nearly impossible to pay his bills or support his family. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The rising numbers of COVD-19 cases in communities across Routt County have brought more public health restrictions, and increasing the challenges for restaurant owners who have been in survival mode since March.

“Some restaurateurs are very scared that they won’t be able to make it through the winter if we are restricted at 25% or if we move to the next level, which would be pickup and delivery only,” said Nick Sharp, who heads up the Steamboat Chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “And some restaurateurs are optimistic that they can hang on tight while this extra mitigation happens in hopes that the community stays safe, and we get back to a more operable level by the time that the snow is flying and our real season is here.”

Earlier this week, Routt County moved to Safer at Home Level Orange, which reduces capacity at retail stores, offices, restaurants, places of worship and other indoor events to 25% capacity.

“I spoke with a lot of restaurant owners yesterday, and we all sent letters to the (Routt County Board of Commissioners) explaining that we can’t survive at 25%. Twenty-five percent puts us at a place where we can’t pay our bills,” said David Eliason who owns How Ya Doin Pizza N Eatz, Back Door Grill and O’Neil’s Tavern & Grill. “They put handcuffs on us and basically told us we can’t provide for our families, and we’re not allowed to pay our bills. We’re in a bad spot.”

Eliason said he saw an almost immediate drop in business when the news of the level change came out. He stressed that his businesses are clean and safe. He also said that restaurants like his need help from the community more than ever.

“We’ve got to ask the locals to help us get through the next five weeks,” Eliason said. “Order delivery, order takeout or come in to our restaurants. I’ve just instituted delivery at O’Neill’s and at Back Door. We got all that set up in 24 hours, got the word out and now we’re starting to deliver every day. But we’re desperately needing our locals to help us out and get us through this.”

Eliason said he has been looking forward to the start of the ski season, but is now concerned about the restrictions he will face. With the latest numbers Eliason is concerned about more restrictions, a stay-at-home order and is questioning if ski season will come at all.

“If there is no ski season, there won’t be a town after March,” Eliason said. “We rely on those four real good months to get us through the other months, and that’s a big concern right now. We’re all holding our breath thinking Dec. 15 might bring some relief, but they definitely mentioned that no ski season was a possibility. So yeah, this is going be the hardest, the toughest the most stressful time in my 30 years in the restaurant business.”

There has been no proposal to cancel the ski season, but county health officials have stated an increasing amount of cases could put the season in jeopardy. For now, Eliason and other restaurant owners, are hoping that support from the community will keep their businesses open.

Jonas Gabriel has decided to temporarily close Azteca Taqueria, which has been in business in Steamboat Springs since 1999. (Photo by John F. Russell)

For some local businesses the capacity limits and uncertainty around the virus have prompted them to close their businesses for the short term.

“The restrictions have something to do with it,” Jonas Gabriel said of temporarily closing Azteca Taqueria, which has been in downtown Steamboat Springs since 1999. “But it’s just really the lack of funding. It’s just hard when you’re down so much and you just have to keep putting money in, and money in, and your savings. Then as I look toward the winter I’m just not sure what’s going to happen.”

For now Gabriel plans to close the doors — but not forever.

“I’m doing the best I can to open up again,” Gabriel said. “I’m putting a plan together as far as a limited menu, delivery service and curbside. I have no idea when I’m going to be back open. I was hoping by Dec. 1, but it might be a little later. But once we get some people in town, and see how things go. It’s kind of scary right now, and who knows what will happen if we go to stage red.”

Just down U.S. Highway 40 on the west side of Steamboat Springs, Cory Wagner, the executive vice president at Western Centers that owns and operates Snow Bowl, also has decided to close the doors.

The owners of the Snow Bowl Steamboat have decided the responsible thing to do for the community is to close the doors until the spread of COVID-19 is under control. (Photo by John F. Russell)

“With Routt County moving to level Orange, and just some of the comments that were made by the county commissioners we made the difficult decision to say Snow Bowl probably isn’t the best environment to have open at this time because of the fact that so much of what we do is people congregating from different house holds, coming together for birthday parties, or some sort of celebration or opportunity to be around each other,” Wagner said. “With the spikes that we are seeing, not only in Routt County but all throughout Colorado and the nation, the thought was let’s be responsible, let’s just close things down temporarily and wait until a time where there’s a better handle on the virus.”

Wagner said he isn’t sure how long the business will be closed, and he didn’t want to speculate on a reopening date.

“We want to be able to look at the facts at that time to decide if now is the right time, or does it make sense to last longer,” he said.

Wagner said that Snow Bowl has scaled back operations, and was only able to bring back about 30% of its staff over the summer. The closure, however, means that eight employees will be filing for unemployment.

Wagner said that the business will continue to support Family Bowl this year and has plans to work with Routt County United Way to provide meals on Thanksgiving, and with the Steamboat Board of Realtors to provide meals for Christmas. But other than that will not be doing any for-profit business.

In addition to supporting local restaurants by dining out when possible and ordering takeout or delivery, Sharp said the local community plays another important role in supporting local businesses.

The restaurant and retail industries needs the community to take the virus seriously, Sharp said, regardless of their beliefs on whether or not the state policies are realistic or useful.

“The state is governing our business in a way that is measured on the prevalence of the virus. If more community members contract the virus because of their beliefs or their negligence going into the holidays that will be the element that keeps our businesses restricted,” he said.

It’s less to do with whether or not a person believes this is a real threat — because it’s already a real threat to businesses, he added.

“If there’s anything that the business community needs it’s for the locals to do their part in keeping the virus spread low, so that we can return to operations and serve the community,“ he said.


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