Colorado Businesses See A Temporary Lifeline As Polis Rolls Back Coronavirus Restrictions

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An tent for customers who currently can’t eat or drink inside the Edgewater Public Market because of coronavirus rules, Dec. 10, 2020.

Colorado businesses were surprised when Gov. Jared Polis rolled back COVID-19 restrictions in a social media post on Wednesday night. The turnaround is a welcome reprieve, but for many, it may be a short-term Band-Aid. 

Effective Jan. 4, counties now labeled as “Red” on the state’s coronavirus dial will be moved back to “Orange” status. The move encompasses much of the state. That means most restaurants will be able to resume indoor dining at 25 percent capacity. Some restaurants have been able to stay afloat with robust takeout and delivery operations — for both food and drink. But that doesn’t work for everybody. 

At Blake Street Tavern, a sports bar in downtown Denver, the focus is on bar food. 

“Nachos don’t travel well,” said Chris Fuselier, the owner of Blake Street Tavern. 

Fuselier was planning on shutting down temporarily next week because the weather made outdoor drinking and dining unworkable. Now, instead of furloughing remaining staff, he will be bringing 35 people back to work. Still, restaurants need to operate at 50 percent capacity to have a shot at making it in the long-term, he said. 

“It’s a lifeline,” Fuselier said of the move to allow limited indoor dining. “It’s a start, but it’s something that cannot be sustained for a period of time.” 

Scott Engelman is the chairman of the Colorado Restaurant Association. He owns Truffle Pig and Carl’s Tavern in Steamboat Springs. The economics for many restaurants are questionable even at 50 percent capacity, he said. Nonetheless, allowing indoor dining at any capacity will help bring in badly needed revenue, even if it doesn’t translate to much in terms of profits, he said. 

“We need to take what we can get right now,” Engleman said. 

Restaurants in Mesa County have been operating under a state-approved variance for several months, so restaurant owner Josh Niernberg said the announcement might not make a big difference. He owns three restaurants in Grand Junction, Bin 707, Taco Party and Binburger.

“I don't think that it's going to do as much for Mesa County as it is for the rest of the state,” he said. “That said, I think what it will do for the rest of the state is absolutely huge and I'm really happy to see it being implemented.”

Gyms are also set to increase capacity levels from 10 percent to 25 percent under the new guidelines. Cory Brightwell is the CEO of Chuze Fitness, with seven locations in the Denver metro area. He says lifting capacity restrictions to 25 percent will help both large health clubs and small studios to potentially break even. 

“This will allow many operators to survive through a few more months … of tough times,” Brightwell said. “But even 25 percent is having one hand tied behind the back.”

CPR's Ryan Warner contributed to this story.