Palenque Cocina y Agaveria has tried its best to withstand the coronavirus, serving margaritas in a garden patio and carrying smoky bowls of molcajete to its breezy rooftop overlooking downtown Littleton.
Owner Brian Rossi shut down for one week as the first wave of illness hit Colorado, then reopened during the long spring quarantine for takeout only. He closed for 10 days this fall when 12 employees were sick with COVID-19. And in between, Rossi received a federal, forgivable loan so he could keep his staff of 75 on the payroll.
But as new coronavirus restrictions take effect Friday for Arapahoe County and 14 others, forcing restaurants once again to end indoor dining, Rossi isn’t sure how much more his independent restaurant can take.
Rossi will cut his staff to about 12, focus on take-out, and not bother keeping the restaurant rooftop open for the handful of people brave enough to eat outside as the weather turns cold.
“Now we are playing the game of how do we lose the least amount of money?” Rossi said. “Making money is not even in the vocabulary anymore.”
As Denver and its suburbs, plus rural and mountain counties including Routt, Summit and Logan, move into the red-alert level of coronavirus restrictions, restaurants and other businesses are worried this is the final blow.
The new restrictions announced this week by Gov. Jared Polis are an attempt to stave off a full-scale lockdown, one in which businesses deemed non-essential would have to shutter and people would have to stay home. As coronavirus cases and hospitalizations skyrocket, the governor created a new, pre-lockdown level that bans gatherings, indoor events and indoor dining at restaurants. It prohibits alcohol sales at bars and restaurants after 8 p.m. and reduces gym capacity to 10%.
Rossi, who opened Palenque two years ago after several years running Mexican and Italian restaurants, said he understands the need for restrictions. “We always want to be part of the solution and not the problem,” he said. “We’ve followed every protocol to a T and we’ve witnessed firsthand that this thing can spread very easily.
“That being said, I wish our government would pull it together and realize we need help or there are not going to be any independent businesses out there.”
Restaurant Association asked Polis to avoid further restrictions
On Tuesday afternoon, the Colorado Restaurant Association sent out three alerts to members after the governor announced the new COVID-19 restrictions.
The last message included a link to a letter sent to Polis straight up demanding that he “do everything within your power to avoid shutting down restaurants or placing further restrictions upon them.”
Sonia Riggs, the restaurant association’s CEO, said it was unfair to target restaurants. State health leaders have said recent spikes in coronavirus cases are linked to private gatherings, but so far, the public data on this question is sparse.
“We believe the restaurant industry is bearing the brunt of this pandemic when it seems increasingly clear that they’re not the main culprit of spread,” Riggs said in an email. “… In some sense, then, these measures could actually be counterproductive – restaurants appear to be a safer place to be, and closing them just forces more people into homes.”
In Colorado, restaurant and food service workers make up 10% of the state’s workforce and have been the hardest hit industry for unemployment. According to the state Department of Labor and Employment, the “restaurant and other eating places” category has had the highest rate of new unemployment claims every week since mid-March except one.
And according to the association’s recent survey, restaurants are operating at just one-third the staff size of a year ago. Sales for 91% of restaurants were down, with 75% saying they will have to consider shutting down within six months at 25% indoor capacity. Shut indoor dining entirely and 24% said they would shut down in a month.
“If we want our restaurants to survive, they need significant cash help,” Riggs added, requesting that the state and local governments support restaurants with not just grants and loans, but also rent and mortgage assistance and reduced regulatory costs. “And we ask the public to avoid private gatherings, to wear masks, and to wash hands to get these numbers down as quickly as possible so we can reopen.”