Restaurants left out in the cold

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Pandemic makes winter’s lean months even more challenging for local eateries

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A large pile of snow sits on the corner of Cora and Clinton streets in Ridgway, where Colorado Boy customers spent the summer eating pizza, drinking beer and taking advantage of the weather.

Outdoor seating, on patios and sidewalks-turned-dining rooms, kept many restaurants going through the summer despite their indoor capacity limits, with high demand from crowds of tourists looking for places to eat.

But bitter cold weather took away many of those options, and the lower volume typical of the off-season has some restaurants hoping they can make it through the winter now without being able to use their full indoor spaces.

“It’s been a challenge to say the least,” Colorado Boy Ridgway manager Erin Evans said. “We’ve been able to adapt as the rules have unfolded, but now, going into winter, we’re having to get really creative with how to use the outdoor space.”

The restaurant is one of a few along Clinton Street with narrow dining rooms with limited seating, making it difficult to allow for any properly spaced indoor dining complying with COVID-19 rules.

“It’s a nightmare. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve had to deal with in the five years I’ve been open,” Provisions Cafe & Catering owner Amie Minnick said. “It’s constantly pivoting and trying to reinvent whether we’re a restaurant or a takeout joint.”

Under the current state-imposed restrictions, restaurants must be at or below 25 percent of their legal occupancy inside. They were allowed 50 percent capacity this summer and early fall, until COVID case counts surged in October and the state moved Ouray County to level orange, which brought tighter limits.

For restaurants without much indoor space, that amounts to nearly nothing.

“That’s four people inside at one table,” Colorado Boy’s Evans said.

That little space isn’t worth the risk of opening up inside, so the business is trying to find ways to keep outdoor dining appealing through the winter instead. They’ve added a tent over one of the picnic tables outside, which can be reserved and used by one party at a time, as well as a tent at the entrance covering the window for ordering and pickup. The restaurant also purchased heaters for the outdoor picnic tables.

“All of those were new purchases, investments we’re making to create a sense of community to utilize our outdoor space,” Evans said.

At first, Minnick was only offering takeout at Provisions to minimize risk and protect staff and customers. With only nine people allowed inside under the 25 percent capacity rules, that initially felt like too much to risk for a small payoff, until “the sinking ship” forced her to reconsider just before Christmas.

“I decided if I wanted to continue providing the community with a restaurant, then I needed to open my doors back up, otherwise, financially, I was not going to survive,” she said. “It’s been tough but we’re open, you know, and the doors are still open and we’re still going for it.”

“We are definitely going to lose money over the winter due to the lack of seating,” Ouray Brewery owner Erin Eddy said. “I would say we’ll be at least 25 to 40 percent down in revenue.”

In a county where summer tourism helps keep businesses afloat through the winter, struggling through the colder months isn’t an entirely unfamiliar feeling, but the pandemic has made it more challenging.

“Winter has always been a struggle, keeping the doors open to this restaurant,” Minnick said. “Winter’s the hardest time no matter what.”

Ridgway has tried for several years to promote itself as an off-season tourism destination to drive business through the winter, including targeting visitors looking for “safe” destinations during the pandemic. In October, the Ridgway Area Chamber of Commerce announced new marketing efforts, with support from the Colorado Tourism Office, to “highlight a wide range of local businesses and activities that visitors can enjoy safely without the spread of COVID-19.” But with limited capacity in restaurants and no spectators allowed at prominent events, such as the Ouray Ice Festival and San Juan Skijoring, traffic and revenue are still down.

“This weekend, for Ice Fest, my revenue will be down a minimum of 50 percent every day because of the lack of visitation,” Eddy said.

The lower volume of customers has made it harder for businesses, though for some it has made complying with the capacity restrictions easier.

“Summer was obviously a lot easier,” Goldbelt Bar and Grill owner Heather Clark said. “Now going indoors, it’s a little bit more difficult, but of course we don’t have the amount of volume anyway.”

Throughout the summer and early fall months, the patio at Goldbelt was often full to capacity, and the restaurant’s owners added additional outdoor seating to fit more customers outside. Now, at 25 percent capacity indoors, there’s about 15 to 20 people inside at any given time, Clark said.

“We actually still have people sitting outdoors on nicer days,” she said. “If the sun is shining, we set up a few tables and they will choose outdoors over indoors every time.”

People are also opting for takeout over dining in, she said.

“I think it’s grown because of COVID. I think people don’t want to sit by other people, so they just get it to go,” she said.

Eddy said the brewery would typically have about a dozen takeout orders in a night, but he had 30 to 40 boxes going out during the lunch and dinner rushes on weekend nights earlier this month. “We get a lot of folks that come to town and aren’t comfortable dining in,” he said.

Colorado Boy and Provisions have both launched online ordering during the pandemic, making it easier for people to order takeout and pick it up with minimal contact.

“They’re taking full advantage of contactless payment and not even having to call us,” Evans said. They’ve also started selling half-baked pizzas, which customers can pick up to finish cooking at home.

“Our customers have been really kind and open to rolling with all the new things we continue to offer,” she said. And despite the cold weather, loyal customers are still taking advantage of the outdoor seating, she said.

In other areas, outdoor structures like tents or small greenhouses have been erected, though that hasn’t been as popular locally, aside from Colorado Boy’s single-party tent.

“The reality is with the amount of snowfall we get here and a lack of any common place to put that sort of stuff, it’s really a non-issue,” Eddy said. “Trying to set up tents and heat them, financially, it’s really a boondoggle.”

Clark questioned whether outdoor tents are actually safer than having people inside with good ventilation and spacing. ”I just saw an outdoor structure somebody’s set up and that’s full of people,” she said. “That makes no sense to me … I don’t see that as any different than sitting inside.”

She said with fewer customers in the winter, there isn’t enough demand to justify building those kinds of outdoor seating arrangements for many restaurants. “We don’t have the volume during the winter that you need it,” she said.

Minnick said the cost of a structure and lack of space have both prevented her from trying something similar. In the summer, she could squeeze 12 to 14 people at outdoor tables, but there isn’t a way for her to keep that going in the winter.

“You know, I see restaurants getting really creative and having space that they can allow for their creativity, putting up yurts or tents or greenhouses, and I just have a massive amount of envy for those restaurants. They have the options and the funds for that kind of infrastructure,” she said. “I don’t know where they’re getting that money.”

Without a patio or deck space, she would have to build a custom structure along the front of the restaurant that’s narrow enough to avoid blocking the sidewalk. “I don’t have any space to create something like that,” she said.

This summer, restaurants and the town of Ridgway talked about setting up outdoor seating areas along Clinton Street, but ultimately there wasn’t enough interest to move forward, despite having more customers at the time.

“I feel like if the town offered something like that now, the logistics of that would be so difficult,” Minnick said. “You’re compromising your food, sending it out into 20 degrees, I don’t think winter’s the time to do something like that.”

Help for restaurants could be on the way with the second round of Paycheck Protection Program funding, which opened for applications two weeks ago.

Ouray County businesses classified as “accommodations and food service,” including restaurants and hotels, received more than $2 million in PPP loans last spring and summer, according to data released by the Small Business Administration in July.

Under the new guidelines for the second round of funding, businesses in that category can receive loans of up to three and a half months worth of average annual payroll, instead of the two and a half months available to other businesses.  They have to show a 25 percent decline in revenue in at least one quarter of 2020 to be eligible.

They’ll also be allowed to use some of the money for the cost of supplies and still apply for loan forgiveness, which Minnick called “a huge bonus.”

Businesses that received loans during the first round of PPP funding are eligible to apply for the second loan as well, and do not need to have applied for or received forgiveness of the first loan to receive the second.

Eddy, whose restaurant received about $230,000 from the program last spring, said he’s already applied for his second PPP loan and expects to receive it in early February. He used the first to pay employees while the restaurant was closed until June, and the second will be used to maintain the current payroll of about 26 people, he said.  His main concern at this point is retaining his staffers for summer, when he needs twice as many workers.

“What’s critical is my year-round people,” he said. “This allows us to go into the summer in a better situation.”

The town of Ridgway also allocated $20,000 from its federal coronavirus relief funds to the Colorado Restaurant Association to create a local Restaurant Support Program. Four Ridgway restaurants applied for the money and three qualified, Town Manager Preston Neill said. Applicants needed to show their revenue was down 20 percent year over year, and the one restaurant who didn’t qualify couldn’t show that in their application, he said.

The Colorado Restaurant Association spearheaded the program once he contacted them, Neill said, including helping determining eligibility criteria. That money can be used for any operational expenses.

“We left it very general so they can have some flexibility in terms of applying those funds to make sure it goes to good use in keeping restaurants open,” he said.

In addition to the grant program, the town of Ridgway also bought six outdoor propane heaters, which restaurants or other local businesses can lease for free, Neill said, another attempt to help restaurants cope with limited indoor capacity.

As the state’s restrictions for restaurants have changed, with counties moved in and out of level red, where indoor dining isn’t allowed at all, restaurants elsewhere in Colorado have become increasingly vocal in defying the rules.

Owners of CJ’s Diner in Durango have filed a lawsuit against Gov. Jared Polis, CDPHE and San Juan Basin Public Health, and Bulldog Pub and Grub in Greeley raised more than $10,000 on a GoFundMe campaign to challenge the state’s restrictions. The group was initially called the Weld County Alliance, and said in a Facebook post in December they were becoming the “Colorado Restaurant and Small Business Alliance,” seeking businesses outside the county to join.

“The Weld County Alliance has been formed to utilize the power of numbers of businesses banded together to fight back against the job-killing, dream-crushing orders and decrees of state government run amok,” the restaurant said in a Facebook post. “Initial funding will be used to put together a new lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the arbitrary and capricious decisions being made with no input from and, apparently no consideration of, us the businesses of this state.”

The attorney referenced in their Facebook posts, Randy Corporon, a Republican National Committee member and radio host, declined to speak with the Plaindealer about the suit.

Eddy said there are restaurants in Ouray County that aren’t following the regulations, “and there’s no enforcement.”

“If you’re going to have those rules, shouldn’t everyone have to comply?” he asked. “The consistency, at the state, regional and local level, I think, is poor. Just poorly managed.”

Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery has asked the state for additional support in enforcing the regulations and inspecting businesses to ensure compliance, but he said he has not received any help. The department, which has three full-time employees, including Kingery, is stretched thin keeping up with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, and individually checking out every complaint about a noncompliant business takes additional time.

He said a state employee from the Liquor and Tobacco Enforcement division was in the county in late December inspecting liquor licensees’ compliance and reported back to Kingery that local businesses were “doing a good job.” Kingery said he had no idea the inspector was coming until after the inspections were over.

“If we could get some more people like that, that would be awesome,” he said. “I’m thinking there is some kind of support out there that I just haven’t found yet.”

A state program modeled on Mesa County’s efforts, the Five-Star Certification program, was intended to help businesses like restaurants remain open at higher capacities if they met additional safety standards. Ouray County’s case numbers have remained too high to qualify for that program, and implementing it would require resources that the county doesn’t haven, Kingery and Emergency Manager Glenn Boyd said last month.