Perched on a hilltop at the southern edge of the Denver metro area, Lone Tree restaurant Sierra boasts vistas of the city, swanky dining rooms, large outdoor patios, and enough seating for up to 350 guests.
But on May 18, towers of chairs sat stacked up, tables lay bare and the building stood empty except for a handful of masked employees cooking takeout and delivery orders.
Sierra's sales have been ringing in at roughly 10% of its usual business amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has kept Colorado restaurants closed to dine-in service for roughly two months.
Sierra's co-founder and owner Mark Brinkerhoff said restaurants, which already operate on tight margins, can't sustain that for much longer. Many operations, Sierra included, were not designed for the dine-out model, he said.
“Most of us are probably operating at a loss,” he said.
He hopes things will change this month.
Douglas County is fighting to get local restaurants up and running in May through a variance it requested from the state's safer-at-home order.
“It's a step in the right direction,” Brinkerhoff said. “We can bring back some of our workforce. We can serve our community.”
Sierra has 10 to 15 employees working in shifts at present but could bring back 50 if the variance is approved, Brinkerhoff said. The restaurant typically employs 100 people.
If approved, county restaurants could transition to dine-in services as early as May 22, so long as they follow a slew of social distancing and public health guidelines.
“(May 22 is) the beginning of summer. That's a three-day weekend,” Commissioner Lora Thomas said. “I think it would make a lot of sense for our citizens, for them to finally get freedom at the beginning of summer.”
'County is ready to move'
Commissioners said that in light of Douglas County's low case and death rate, they are confident Douglas County can safely reopen restaurants now. The variance would also open gyms and houses of worship under stringent public health measures.
The first step to applying for a variance is forming a suppression plan, Commissioner Roger Partridge said. The plans assess the state of the virus in a community and outline its capacity for responding to the pandemic.
Douglas County's suppression plan notes that as of May 15, there were 632 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county, according to state health department data. That's nearly 3% of cases statewide and .17% of the county's population.
There are at least 39 deaths related to COVID-19 in Douglas County, according to the Tri-County Health Department.
The county's five hospitals submitted letters in support of the variance, stating they had capacity to handle a spike in COVID-19 cases should that occur. Stricter public health measures can be reinstated if the Tri-County Health Department finds the variance is not sufficiently containing COVID-19.
That could be shown through a substantial increase in COVID-related hospitalizations over a two-week period or if the health department is struggling to trace new cases within one day. If a business has an outbreak, the health department can close the business temporarily if it traces the outbreak to that operation.
Brinkerhoff said he is confident restaurants in Douglas County can safely reopen if they abide by the public health guidelines in the variance, and time is of the essence, he said.
He pointed to an April survey by the Colorado Restaurant Association that found three out of four restaurant employees in Colorado have lost their jobs and 50% of the state's restaurants are currently closed.
He was most struck by the survey's finding that, if restaurants don't reopen in May, more than 20% will permanently close.
Commissioner Abe Laydon said he has worked with the Brinkerhoff family for roughly two weeks, as the Brinkerhoffs represent a working group of more than 70 local restaurants. Laydon's goal was to get feedback on what restaurants need to safely reopen and reignite a sustainable business model.
The county's suppression plan acknowledges that, in requesting the variance, the county is relying on the public to be responsible amid the pandemic. It suggests high-risk and older individuals should continue living under stay-at-home guidelines. People who are sick should stay away from the public. Anyone displaying COVID-19 symptoms should isolate.
There's no guarantee the variance will be approved, or if so, when. The Denver Post reported nearly half of the state's 64 counties requested to ease safer-at-home restrictions but only five had received approvals by mid-May.
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Republican from Castle Rock, criticized Gov. Jared Polis for long wait times on variance applications and has openly supported restaurants that defied public health orders and reopened to dine-in service.
Commissioner Thomas also said May 18 she grew concerned when the governor announced that day, he would soon release guidelines for when restaurants reopen, but a decision on when they can reopen was not expected for several days.
A spokesman for the governor's office deferred to the Colorado Department of Public Health when asked for comment. A spokeswoman for the CDPHE said the timeline to review and approve variances depends on the complexity of the requests and reiterated the governor would release more guidelines for restaurants in the coming week.
“I just really hope he will look at the data and understand that Douglas County is ready to move to the next stage,” Thomas said.
Defying orders, legal battles
Douglas County's variance request comes amid mounting pressure from some Coloradans to reopen the state economy now. A protest swarmed the Capitol steps on May 17 as people from across the state called for Colorado to reopen.
The county also found itself at the center of controversy this month when a Castle Rock restaurant opened to dine-in service, defying state orders.
The restaurant, C&C Coffee and Kitchen, garnered national attention on May 10 by offering in-person dining to large Mother's Day crowds. Few people work masks and patrons packed the shop.
The restaurant was ordered to close by the Tri-County Health Department and the state later suspended its business license indefinitely.
C&C is gearing up for legal battles challenging the state's shutdowns with other area restaurants that opened despite public health orders.
C&C's attorney Randy Corporon is also representing Centennial restaurant Waters Edge Winery and Bistro, which closed briefly after the Tri-County Health Department issued it warnings for reopening to dine-in service earlier this month.
Corporon represents Shooters Grill as well, a Rifle eatery that also made headlines for reopening to dine-in service this month.
Corporon has consulted numerous restaurants, he said, including Tonti's Pizza in Parker, another area restaurant that received stern warnings from Tri-County Health Department when it opened to dine-in service. A Tri-County Health Department spokesman said Tonti's is now in compliance and working well with the agency.
The Town of Parker sent a letter to the governor on May 18 urging the state reopen restaurants and gyms to reopen with safety protocols in place.
As a member of the restaurant industry, Brinkerhoff was disappointed to see photos of the reopenings showed people at the restaurants did not follow social distancing, such as wearing masks or staying six feet apart. That behavior does not help efforts to reopen, he said.
Still, Brinkerhoff said he can't judge the businesses for reopening without knowing details of their financial situation.
Whether reopening was good or bad, he said, he believes it sparked a conversation about stresses on the restaurant industry, put pressure on the government to help out more and created a sense of urgency around the issue.
C&C co-owner Jesse Arellano said his restaurant put up signs telling people if they were uncomfortable, they could leave. He also said the restaurant separated chairs and told staff they could wear masks if they wanted, although many removed them as the kitchen grew hot.
“Everyone that was there chose to be there, wanted to be there,” he said. “People were so happy to be out and live life normal.”
Arellano also said the county's variance request is coming too late, and that the board should have pushed for lighter restrictions one month after the initial shutdowns.
The variance allows restaurants to reopen with 75 customers or 50% capacity, whichever is fewer. Arellano believes many restaurants will still be forced to permanently close under that guidance and would prefer the variance allow 75% capacity in dining areas.
“I think that restaurants have really been treated unfairly in this whole deal,” he said of the pandemic response.
`Businesses are on life support'
Although Neville said some restaurants have no alternative to defying public health orders, aside from declaring bankruptcy, not all elected and public health leaders had the same response.
Polis, the Tri-County Health Department and the CDPHE all rebuked the move and said it could endanger lives.
Douglas County commissioners also condemned defying public health orders. Thomas said the governor's reaction to C&C — pulling the license — sent a strong message.
“We were telling people who were contacting us, please do not encourage other restaurants to open illegally because we do not want to be made an example of here in Douglas County,” she said.
The county began preparing for a variance request as soon as it read the safer-at-home order, she said. Laydon said the board's priority is reopening businesses safely, quickly but also legally.
“We believe that the legal process is important and that working with our partners to advance the ball is crucial,” Laydon said. “But we understand these businesses are on life support right now and they are frustrated and really need the opportunity to reopen.”
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