Restaurants Balance Staying Open With Staying Safe In A New World Centered Around Takeout And Disinfectant

Davies Chuck Wagon Diner in Lakewood is closed Monday, March 23, 2020, the morning after Gov. Jared Polis advised people to stay home because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Lifelong Denver resident Simeran Baidwan has owned Little India Restaurant & Bar for over two decades. 

He started the eatery in 1998 with the help of his family. More than 20 years later, his small business has flourished and he has been able to open a second location. But now that restaurants face more restrictions because of the spread of COVID-19, he’s a little concerned. 

“I haven’t laid off any of my staff, and I’m trying really hard not to,” Baidwan said. 

Gov. Jared Polis banned on-site dining at all restaurants and bars across the state in response to the pandemic. Eateries are only allowed to do take-out and delivery for at least a month. In Denver, that ban goes until May. 

According to the U.S. Drug and Food Administration, there is no evidence that food or packaging is associated with the transmission of the coronavirus. Anyone who handles, prepares or serves food should always follow safe food handling procedures such as washing their hands and disinfecting surfaces. These are things restaurants already do under health codes.

Some small businesses have closed because of the lack of revenue. The restaurants that are still open must follow extra safety precautions when running deliveries.

Baidwan, along with other restaurateurs, has advertised his business’ cleanliness to put customers at ease and promote trust in his establishment. To avoid layoffs, he’s switched some of his employees’ primary jobs to regularly sanitizing all surfaces and offering disinfectant wipes to customers who arrive for pick-up orders.

Restaurants are also leaving food on porches and ring doorbells for deliveries, as well as encouraging customers to pay over the phone so no receipts have to be signed.

Other restaurants that do not offer delivery have started to offer curbside service to encourage customers not to come into the establishment. Jerald Foote, an associate professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, said those methods can help lessen the spread of the virus, especially curbside pick-up.

“It keeps customers apart and it’s safer [because] the customer has the food right away,” Foote said. “It’s not sitting on someone’s porch.”

Foote also emphasized that leaving the food on the porch is fine as long as the customer gets it right away. It becomes a food hazard if it just stays there.

Jerrod Hofferber, a manager for El Camino, which serves the greater Highlands area of Denver, said it's “a work-in-progress, day-to-day, thinking of how we can improve [and] limit our contact with people. We try to distance ourselves from the guests as much as possible.”

For El Camino, pick-up is more popular than delivery. Hofferber said the restaurant is only doing about 12 deliveries per day.

“We’re just trying to keep our people positive,” he said.

Elliot Schiffer is the CEO of Mici Handcrafted Italian, which has six locations throughout the state. Customers were already able to order online directly through the company’s site. Mici now allows customers to request that their delivery is touch-free. The company also requires all delivery drivers to wear gloves.

“We have implemented hourly cleanings [inside],” Schiffer said. “We have a timer on the hour and we spray surfaces that people may come in contact with inside the restaurant from the door handles to the counters.”

Schiffer said Mici is lucky that they already had an online ordering system prior to COVID-19 since so many of his customers were already accustomed to relying on delivery and pick-up.

“Certainly, this is a painful time, but we are fortunate that we have the capabilities to have some of our business back,” he said.

Schiffer said that he’s doing so well that not only has he not had to lay off any of his workers, all six of his locations are actually hiring more delivery drivers to keep up with the demand.

A lot of restaurants don’t operate delivery in-house and instead rely on third-party services like Doordash or UberEats.

Doordash is the process of shipping more than one million free sets of hand sanitizer and gloves to their independent contractors. Their default delivery method is now a no-contact option, which means leaving the food on the doorstep or porch if possible. UberEats doesn’t make a no-contact option the default, but customers can indicate if they prefer drivers to leave food instead of handing it directly to them.

The Colorado Restaurant Association is not tracking which restaurants are following precautions but said that all the restaurants in the state are heavily regulated by the health codes and that has not changed in the wake of COVID-19.

“Both the state and local health departments have increased the amount of education and communication they have with the restaurant industry through emails, phone calls, and in-person visits to businesses that have chosen to remain open for to-go and delivery,” said the manager of government affairs at CRA, Nick Hoover. “Regulatory inspections are still happening but have been focused on where they are needed first.”

Visit Denver, Boulder Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, Eat Denver and the Colorado Restaurant Association created a website called To Go Denver for customers to find restaurants.

“This was really specific to let people know who was open and what opportunities as far as takeout, delivery, and drive-thru was available,” said Visit Denver president and CEO Richard Scharf.