After months, Coloradans can get back to eating out at their favorite restaurants — if those places are open and if they are following some strict rules about social distancing.
Gov. Jared Polis gave restaurants the green light to reopen on May 27 under the state’s guidelines. Indoor dining hasn't been allowed since widespread pandemic closures were put in place in March. Still, some in Denver faced additional hurdles after Mayor Michael Hancock ordered an 8 p.m. curfew after people damaged property downtown following a peaceful protest over the death of George Floyd.
So how’s dine-in service going across the state? In Mesa County, restaurants have been open for several weeks under a state variance. In Denver, diners have seen helicopters fly overhead during mass protests.
Colorado Public Radio reporters checked in with restaurants and here’s what they found.
Reopening in this new reality takes some hustle. In Colorado Springs, the city is allowing restaurants to add extra tables outside if the neighbors are OK with it.
Odyssey Gastropub is trying to reopen with 50 percent indoor occupancy.
“So as many seats as we can get outside, as long as we can maintain our distance, you know, that's going to be huge for us. That will double our capacity,” said Tyler Sherman, who co-owns the restaurant with Jenny Sherman, his wife.
In their case, the neighbor is the Colorado Springs Housing Authority.
“Apparently, they’re trying to add some additional seating out here,” said Deputy Director Paul Spencer.
And the Housing Authority seems OK with that, provided the Shermans can maintain privacy for residents of the nonprofit.
Just one block north in downtown, the Wild Goose Meeting House is open for guests for the first time since the pandemic.
Co-owner Russ Ware said for the past couple of months, it’s been a ghost town around here.
“As things have begun to change, it has just come to life. It's not normal. But it is, it feels OK. It doesn't feel strange. It feels good,” Ware said.
The Wild Goose already has expansive outdoor seating.
On Friday, at a table in the shade of an umbrella, Connor and Valerie Wirth are taking in some brunch. They’re on vacation from New Hampshire — a trip planned long before coronavirus. They said they waited for weeks with fingers crossed.
“It seemed like everything was starting to re-open, so we were like, let’s go!” Connor Wirth said.
Nearby, teachers Amanda Gasco and Katie Smith came here for a work meeting.
“It's local. We wanted to support local. So I think that's why we chose here this morning. And they have a patio,” Gasco said with a laugh.
— Dan Boyce
At the Main Street Cafe, a 50s-style diner, in the heart of town, there are eight tables set up on their patio. And just one is occupied on Friday.
But it’s just the afternoon lull. The restaurant has had some busier times in recent weeks after Mesa County got permission to resume dine-in service earlier than most of the state.
The cafe was closed for two months — it just wasn’t profitable as a to-go business. So the wait staff was eager to return.
“May 16 was my first day back since we shut down,” said server Holly Stanley.
While Stanley wanted to get back to work, she worried how the public would react to the restaurant’s social distancing rules.
“I've heard a lot of scary stories about people getting hurt and getting in arguments and stuff. And I didn't want to be like the enforcer, you know, of this,” she said.
With the exception of one person who walked out, Stanley said the safety steps haven’t bothered customers — especially not the regulars.
“They were so stoked that we were open and really didn't care what they had to do to get one of our burgers or to have our green chili. They were like, whatever, you need me to do ... I'll do it. Can I get a burger?”
The only big problem is the same one so many people are dealing with right now: money. Especially since the diner is only allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity.
“And so for us servers, that's 50 percent of what we make it, you know, and sometimes even less,” Stanley said.
Her unemployment checks were delayed and are now helping fill in the gap. And she said business is slowly getting better every day. So she’s trying to stay positive. It helps that those regular customers of hers are eager to chat.
She said they ask how she’s been and whether she’s staying healthy.
“They're just really concerned and they're really happy to see us and that,” she said.
And that makes her smile — under her mask.
— Stina Sieg
Rioja has been open in lower downtown for about a week as of Saturday.
“Actually just seeing a few people just walking around downtown has been nice… to see Larimer Square empty has been weird,” said Jennifer Jasinski, one of the owners.
“We want to just be here. Serve our guests. Give them a great night. Let them forget about all the crap that is happening.”
And let Jasinski forget about having to close another restaurant, Euclid Hall, because of the pandemic.
She said that so far, Rioja has been a little quieter than it was before. Diners sit far away from one another and some seem unsure about when is the right time to remove their mask — or whether they can walk by other people to use the bathroom.
Lane Garwood of Denver came out to eat with his family. He said he thinks dining out is somewhat safer than going grocery shopping.
“I only have one person coming up to the table. They’re wearing a mask. Sometimes gloves... When you go to the grocery store you have to kind of bob and weave through people,” he said.
He didn’t realize what a big part of his life dining was until the pandemic hit.
“We’ve been very excited for tonight, Friday night coming out to Rioja. It is back to normal. It’s therapeutic.”
However, it was not totally normal in Denver over the weekend — the diners can hear helicopters circling because, for several nights in a row, people have been protesting just a few blocks away over police brutality.
Jasinski said it’s been tough to reopen with that going on.
“That feels like another kick when you’re down because of course people are scared to come downtown now so we had a lot of cancellations this morning,” she said.
Then there are people like Deena Paz, who just aren’t comfortable dining out yet. She came to Rioja for a takeout order. While she wants to support the restaurant — she also wants to let them work out the kinks before she enjoys a night out.
“So far it looks pretty safe from what I’m seeing. A lot of good social distancing but I’m going to wait a little bit,” she said.
— Hayley Sanchez
At Intersections Restaurant during the Sunday morning brunch hour — there is at least one couple dining outside.
“This particular establishment is very cautious of making sure we felt comfortable so it was good. It was a good experience,” said Mike Spivey.
Owner Rick Humbert said there were just five people — including the couple — all weekend who were interested in dining.
“I think a lot of people are still nervous about how it works and it’s not the greatest feeling in the world to see the mask, and the gloves and the tables are empty,” he said.
Intersections is only open on the weekends because business is so slow. As the morning went on, a stream of people did stop in to grab to-go bags. Humbert said his customers are loyal. While he appreciates that, he isn’t confident they will keep the restaurant afloat.
“I don’t want to say we’re weathering the storm. We’re still breathing. Business has been basically none ... but we have really good staff members and we want to keep them,” he said.
To encourage more people to dine in, Humbert is looking to add alcohol to his menu options and create more outside dining. But he said the next two to three weeks will be critical as he tries to decide whether or not he can stay open.
— Taylor Allen