Starting this week, restaurants in Denver and many surrounding counties are allowed to lift their mask mandates, lift distancing requirements, and return to full capacity according to the latest Level Clear guidelines.
But before diners throw aside their face coverings or go to a restaurant and expect a seat, some business owners and their employees have a message for them: We are not clear yet.
“We actually haven’t changed any (COVID-19 rules), and I doubt we’ll be doing that for a while,” said Austin Carson, who owns Olivia Italian restaurant in Denver’s Washington Park.
He’s not alone in the mood. A week after Level Clear began, many restaurants are still opting against some, if not all, of the state and county-easing COVID-19 restrictions. They keep 6 feet between tables or require masks on arrival and whenever customers are not seated to eat.
And they ensure that the staff are still masked while they prepare food and interact with guests.
“Employees’ obligation to keep wearing masks is in part for their comfort and safety, but also for the customers who wear them to avoid feeling ostracized,” said Katie Robbins, co-owner of Uncorked Kitchen & Wine Bar in Centennial .
The reasons for following stricter guidelines than those enforced by the city and state are complicated, according to owners like Robbins and Carson. On the one hand, restaurants are desperate for cash after more than a year of closure, reduced capacity and take-away service.
Colorado restaurants lost a total of $ 3 billion in 2020, reports the Colorado Restaurant Association.
Hyoung Chang, the Denver Post
On Friday, May 21, 2021, the Uncorked Kitchen & Wine Bar in Centennial, Colorado will have a sign saying “We are a Mask Friendly Business”.
On the other hand, restaurants in the past have lacked staff as they have the green light to reopen fully and make some money back. According to the CRA, more than 90% of Colorado restaurants are struggling to hire in April and May.
In addition, employees who are not fully vaccinated or employees with children at home who do not yet qualify for shots, and for many the reasons for continued restricted seat and mask policies outweigh the reasons for slacking off.
“We think it’s a little early and I would like a higher vaccination rate,” said Eileen Warthen, who co-owns Potager in Capitol Hill.
When Warthen and her team found out about the move to Level Clear, they were unprepared. To fully unload the restaurant again, money and maneuvers are required for which they have not yet had time.
“It will help (the business) tremendously if we can bring operations back to normal,” said Warthen. “But I won’t offer bad service or let the quality of the restaurant suffer.”
The way these restaurants balance customer expectations with their own ongoing pandemic restrictions varies from company to company.
At Potager, Warthen and the team ask guests to make reservations if they can. They keep the tables a meter apart and hand out disposable masks for guests who come in without a hand.
The Olivia restaurant goes a step further and still requires reservations. And Carson’s wife and co-owner, Heather Morrison, calls each name on the books beforehand to confirm the reservation while she takes a moment to explain the restaurant’s COVID-19 policies that are still in effect.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” said Carson. “We make sure that we separate all political bases or the like from one another. We’re just being extra careful. ”
“On a personal level,” he added, “we have a 10-year-old at home who cannot be vaccinated.”
Uncorked has reopened its wine bar seating this week and declared itself “100% mask-friendly” in an email to guests detailing the latest policy changes. While capacity and opening times are still limited, the restaurant no longer requires face covering for those who come to eat.
From now on, all children attending Uncorked’s summer cooking camps will be wearing masks in accordance with the latest school guidelines, Robbins said. She complained that this exact combination of rules was particularly difficult to define for a company that functions as both a restaurant and a cooking school.
“For the past 14 months we’ve been following the guidelines given to us (by government officials),” Robbins said. “So it was a big challenge to completely turn the script over and load us 100%.”
“There’s no point in continuing to be in a gray area,” she added.
So, restaurants like this will make their own rules for the next several weeks await their owners as they keep an eye on vaccination and case rates across the state. To date, just over half of adults in Colorado have been fully vaccinated, and the number of new COVID-19 cases has dropped to 7,009 since last week, a low last seen in late March.
And the owners ask the guests for further patience, as everyone will be working towards “normal” again in the coming weeks.
“Although there are still some restrictions, it feels like a real restaurant again. It feels busier … it feels more optimistic, I don’t want to say normal, “Warthen said of Potager. “But people are so willing to go out and make things as normal as possible. I understand that it’s difficult for everyone to still be masked.”
Her and others’ advice: know where to eat, read the latest restaurant guidelines, and don’t accept anything.
“If you don’t want to go to a place because they don’t ask for masks or because they do, I think that’s fine,” said Carson of Olivia. “That makes this country the way it is. But be respectful, you never know what’s going on behind the scenes. ”
Subscribe to our Stuffed food newsletter to get Denver food and drink news delivered to your inbox.