Reopening to in-person dining translates to added work, higher costs, lower revenues
As he walks through Ouray Brewery, owner Erin Eddy watches as customers touch countertops or grab the hand railings on the stairs.
He notices when a bartender touches her face, or when someone adjusts a face mask. Anything that could potentially transmit the virus catches his eye now, and that means he’s noticing a lot.
“The risk of cross-contamination is just crazy,” he said.
Eddy, who was the county’s first confirmed COVID-19 patient, is hyper-aware of the safety concerns as the brewery and other restaurants reopen for indoor dining under strict regulations from the state Department of Public Health and Environment. He believes he caught the virus during a particularly busy weekend at the brewery in March, after neighboring ski resorts closed and tourists flooded Ouray. Despite spending hours that day bleaching every surface, Eddy got sick, and he knows he can’t completely eliminate the risk.
And it doesn’t matter, because here they come, and they’re touching everything no matter what,” he said.
Now Eddy and other restaurant owners are faced with new challenges to open their doors and serve customers beyond takeout. The state’s new guidelines include cutting occupancy by at least half, keeping customers and tables at least 6 feet away from each other, and cleaning bathrooms hourly, all changes that amount to added work, higher costs and lower revenues. Some scrambled to get protocols in place as soon as they could after the state announced they could reopen on May 25 - others haven’t seated diners yet because they’re still trying to figure out how to meet the requirements.
“We were given 24 hours to essentially open an entirely new restaurant,” said Taryn Lee, co-owner of Bon Ton Restaurant. “There was a lot of red tape to cross and make sure we were complying with.”
Eddy waited a few days after the state allowed restaurants to resume in-person dining to seat his first tables. His experience with the virus has “changed the severity with which I take things with my employees,” he said. He described keeping up with the regulations as a constant, ongoing process.
Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery, who is tasked with inspecting the county’s 6o-plus licensed retail food establishments, said he’s responding to occasional complaints about violations, “maybe three a week.”
“A few places are getting a little close on the 6-foot distance on the tables,” he said. At this point he’s focusing on compliance and education. “I’m able to just say, ‘Hey I want to remind you of the rules: I haven’t seen anything really concerning.” He’ll be resuming regular restaurant inspections soon, once he receives more guidance from the state, Kingery said.
He said it’s ‘kind of a mixed bag” of restaurants resuming in-person dining, sticking with to-go only and staying completely closed for now.
Under state regulations, restaurants must keep occupancy at less than half their legal limit or fewer than 50 people, though a county variance allows up to 50%, or 100 people. But restaurant owners said the practical requirements mean they’re actually keeping their capacities even lower. Some are faced with such limited square footage they are limited to less than half capacity.
“To meet the 6 to 8 feet in between tables and people, we had to take out more than 50% of our tables,” Lee said.
At Ouray Brewery, the first-floor bar is closed, and Eddy removed tables from both interior seating areas and the roof to create open space.
“Seating’s cut in half, and the turns are going to be cut in half, so you really knock back by at least 75% of your capacity on a daily basis,” Eddy said.
Customers can’t seat themselves, there’s more table service than bar orders, and it takes longer to clean spaces, all slowing how often tables turn over to the next diners, he said.
Other restaurants, like Ridgway’s Thai Paradise, have found the risk of reopening dining rooms too high, even at a lower capacity, and are continuing with takeout only for at least a few more weeks.
“It’s healthier for us, and the customer as well,” owner Patti Lawler said. “If our staff or employee gets sick and we have to close the business to clean things, that would be the big thing.”
For now, the restaurant is asking customers to wait outside to pick up their to-go orders, and encouraging paying by card over the phone to limit contact as much as possible.
“If, in two weeks, everything’s still stable, we’re probably going to try to open up some sections,” she said, including outdoor tables and maybe some inside seating.
Cleaning and supplies
The state regulations also call for more frequent cleaning, including disinfecting restrooms every hour, “which is cool; we like being clean,” Eddy said. “But if you’re super busy in the middle of lunch, you know, do you have someone that is dedicated all day that they have to do that no matter what’s going on?”
The establishment is using more bleach instead of other cleaning products, Lee said.
Lawler said she and her employees are wiping down the counter in between each in-person order, and washing their hands after handling any credit card or cash. That’s required buying more soap and cleaning supplies.
There are other purchases that add up, like the signs required to notify customers about the rules, and disposable menus. The rules prohibit shared condiments, so customers need individual packets of sauce or salt and pepper, and more to-go containers are needed to keep up with increased takeout.
Every restaurant is stocking up on those supplies at the same time, making them harder to buy. “It’s like the novelty of toilet paper; everyone has to buy the same thing,” Lee said. She can’t find to-go bags with handles, and Bon Ton is putting salt in small cups since paper packets are sold out. “The cost of everything is going up because people need them,” she said.
Figuring out staffing for reopening restaurants isn’t a clear-cut process either. While fewer people are dining out, some of the restrictions require more employees to comply.
“Because we are we are guests out, there’s more space to cover,” Lee said. “We still need support staff, but our kitchen is right now about at half capacity.”
She and Eddy said they’ve cut back on seasonal hiring, a result of an uncertain spring and unknown expectations for the summer ahead.
“In a traditional year, I would have already put out ads weeks ago for summer staff. I would have already known how many people I needed to hire,” Lee said. Without knowing if or when full operations can resume and whether tourism will rebound, “this year, there is no path to follow.”
Eddy paused his typical hiring in March and April because of the uncertainty, and won’t hire the foreign students who usually work there in the summer. “We had no idea what was going to happen,” he said. Are we going to be allowed to open? Is there going to be a second surge of this virus? So we were not able to do any of our normal hiring.”
‘It’s not sustainable’
While restaurants have scrambled to comply with the new rules for June, they continue to be concerned about surviving the slower fall and winter months.
“It’s not sustainable at all,” Lee said. “Not only do we have our standard bills to cover and also the increased cost of supplies, we have about two and a half months of lost revenue to make up.”
Restaurants rely on summer tourism to carry them through slower months: about 6o% of Ouray Brewery’s annual revenue comes from June to September, Eddy said.
“The winter scares me more than anything,” he said. “If you don’t stuff all that money in the bank in that four-month period, you just start bleeding more cash in the off-season.”
“This week should kick off our busiest season, and yet we’re only seeing winter-night numbers or less,” Lee said. “That’s not going to carry any business through in this town.”
The months of being closed and limiting capacity mean restaurants will be trying to cover debt they’ve already accumulated, rather than saving to cover the next slow time, Lee said, threatening their long-term survival.
“The numbers are just not there,” she said.
Liz Teitz is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms and has chosen the Ouray County Plaindealer as a host newsroom. For more information please visit www.reportforamerica.org.