‘Survival mode’: Steamboat restaurants, lodging companies urge earlier reopening under COVID-19
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Restaurants are not just about the food.
When people seek a nice brunch or a night out, they want to have an experience, explained local restaurateur Phil Armstrong.
As the owner of three of Steamboat Springs’ most upscale restaurants — Table 79, Aurum and Periodic Table — Armstrong has gained success in crafting an elegant dining experience without the pompousness of a New York bistro or Michelin-star steakhouse. He envisions his establishments as places where people can enjoy a nice meal along the Yampa River while wearing clothes from that day’s hike, and where a $50 steak can exist on the same menu as half-price happy hour appetizers.
“It was working for us,” Armstrong said of the business model, which allowed him to expand to a fourth restaurant in Breckenridge with plans to open additional locations in Winter Park and Aspen.
But as the restrictions under the COVID-19 pandemic continue to keep customers from enjoying the ambiance he so carefully cultivated, Armstrong finds himself reconsidering everything.
“It’s like we went from expansion plans to survival mode,” Armstrong said. “We honestly don’t know if our restaurants will survive.”
Across Steamboat, businesses’ eagerness for customers is palpable. Signs line the roads advertising takeout options and sales. Large banners have been strung across storefronts in the hopes of attracting the eyes of passersby.
Some of the messages attempt to lighten the otherwise somber state of public health. A chalkboard outside The Corner Slice pizzeria downtown reads, “Stay home, stay healthy, eat pizza!”
While business owners like Armstrong are doing everything in their power to stay afloat, they can only do so much under the state and local restrictions. With frustrations mounting and no clear end in sight for the pandemic — a vaccine could be months or years away — many of them are galvanizing to demand action.
A plan for reopening
During a Board of Routt County Commissioners meeting Wednesday, members from both the Steamboat Springs Restaurant and Lodging associations presented plans for reopening, buttressed by pages of mitigation protocols based on the most recent health guidelines.
Nick Sharp, president of the local chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said the county cannot wait on the state to decide when Steamboat establishments can welcome customers to their tables. Gov. Jared Polis has said he plans to unveil a timeline of further openings under the safer-at-home phase by May 25, but it is unclear when any changes would take effect. Mid-June has been tossed around as a possible date, but possibilities do not assuage the concerns of the people who depend on business for their livelihoods.
Much of what is in Steamboat’s restaurant reopening plan is nothing new to the industry, Sharp said. Cleanliness is a cornerstone of a successful eatery, and officials already conduct regular inspections throughout the year.
“Where else besides a hospital do employees clean a space guests take up between every guest?” Sharp asked the commissioners.
Meanwhile, businesses like marijuana dispensaries and pawn shops, which typically operate under looser sanitary guidelines, have been accepting patrons throughout the pandemic.
In order for restaurants to have a smooth reopening, Sharp urged the commissioners to push for a starting date before Memorial Day weekend. That would allow businesses to hire and train staff on the new guidelines before their government aid money runs out.
“We want as much time as possible, so we can bring people in early so they are trained before seeing customers,” Sharp said. “Everyone’s space is designed differently, so it is going to take some trial and error.”
Rex Brice, owner of Rex’s Family of Restaurants, said he already experienced issues trying to open his eateries in Steamboat for takeout services. He initially kept all of these restaurants closed when the stay-at-home order took effect at the end of March, then took a phased approach to reopening. The first of his restaurants to offer service was Mazzola’s, an Italian restaurant along Lincoln Avenue.
The first three days of doing business showed the need for a training period.
“We were disorganized, and it was a mess,” Brice said.
Mazzola’s has since been the training grounds for employees before they help open Brice’s other restaurants.
“That’s just curbside pickup. Imagine what it looks like when you open for full service, and you have these new procedures you have to follow,” he said. “You can do all the dry run-throughs you want, but until you open, you won’t work out all the glitches.”
Taking a cue from other counties
Elsewhere in the state, counties are getting restaurants and other businesses open through variance requests made to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. As of Friday, almost half of the 64 counties in the state were in the process of making requests, but only a handful had been granted. Those places include Moffat, Mesa, Rio Blanco, Sedgwick and Eagle counties, according a report from the Denver Post.
Conditions for reopening come with mandates for reduced capacity and strict health measures, such as screening customers for COVID-19 symptoms and requiring employees to wear face masks. In Mesa County, restaurants can only open at 30% of their normal capacity, and diners must sit at least one table or booth apart, to the chagrin of many business owners worried about making a profit.
“Restaurants aren’t making money at 30% capacity,” Brice said.
Offering takeout has not been a profitable service either, he added, but his restaurants continue to do so as a way for the community to have an option besides grocery stores and for his employees to have work.
At the Wednesday meeting, the Board of Routt County Commissioners said they want to support restaurants but also must keep in mind the safety of the public. Helping the argument for reopening is the fact that no new COVID-19 cases have been reported since April 30, according to county officials, and testing capabilities have improved.
“I think Memorial Day would be a great target (for opening restaurants). We may or may not be able to hit that target, but I think it’s worth trying,” Commissioner Beth Melton said.
At the same time, she acknowledged that in-house dining could increase the risk of the virus spreading and that close monitoring must accompany any changes.
“None of this is without risk,” Melton said. “We just need to be cognizant of this and manage it as best we can.”
Commissioner Tim Corrigan also voiced a concern that even if the county submitted a variance request to ease restrictions, Gov. Polis could announce openings for restaurants across Colorado, which would make the effort moot. It took more than two weeks for the state to grant Moffat County’s request, and other counties are waiting in line.
In the end, the commissioners directed staff to prepare a variance. They plan to review and submit it during a meeting on Monday, according to Melton.
A place to stay
Tied to the success of local restaurants, particularly in a resort community like Steamboat, is the ability to welcome and accommodate visitors.
At the same meeting on Wednesday, Barbara Robinson, chair of the Steamboat Springs Lodging Association, sought confirmation that the county would end its short-term lodging ban on May 31, as scheduled.
She wanted them to make a clear decision by Monday so companies could begin to hire and train staff. Like restaurants, many of the hotels, motels and condominium complexes will run out of their government assistance funding by the end of the month.
“It’s not just an economic driver,” Robinson said after the meeting. “I truly feel we are able to do this safely for our community.”
Also like restaurants, cleanliness is a pillar of the hospitality industry, Robinson said. Many of the guidelines in the Lodging Association’s reopening plan are just stricter protocols for sanitary measures that already were in place. More noticeable changes could include limiting the number of people in fitness areas and pools and installing protective coverings at front desks to limit contact with guests, Robinson said.
While the commissioners voiced their support for allowing lodging starting in June, it came with the caveat that a spike in COVID-19 cases or other unforeseen obstacles could require an extension of the ban.
“Given the uncertainty and how the situation changes, we cannot guarantee anything,” Melton said.
Reinventing the restaurant
With no clear end to the crisis in sight, some owners have reimagined their business models. Johnny B. Goods continues to offer grocery items, such as produce and meats, alongside its usual diner fare, available for delivery or pickup.
Brice is considering something similar for Rex’s Family of Restaurants. His business has started to offer the ingredients and sauces that go into some of customers’ favorite dishes, such as maple vinaigrette and homemade croutons.
“Our business will look different than it did previously,” Brice said. “It’s tough to see a business you spent your life building crumble beneath you and have to reinvent it, but that’s where we are.”
Armstrong remains optimistic that the storm will clear in time and people will have an appetite for the same dining experiences as before, perhaps with a new fervor after these weeks of isolation.
Armstrong remains committed to the experience, the ambiance and hopes his customers will, too.
“I’m going to focus on having great restaurants just like we always have and hope people are still hungry for that,” he said.
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