As the deadline to cease indoor dining loomed, several Douglas County restaurants were debating how — and if — to comply with the new public health orders while local leaders urged caution.
Amid a surge in cases, Gov. Jared Polis announced additional restrictions earlier in the week for 15 counties being placed in the red level of the state's new COVID-19 dial, the last level before a stay-at-home order. The new rules close restaurants to indoor dining, effective 5 p.m. Nov. 20.
The co-owners of one Castle Pines restaurant, who spoke to Colorado Community Media on the condition they not be named, said a group of area restaurateurs gathered the morning of Nov. 20 to discuss the new restrictions, including if some would choose to defy the new health orders.
The group's discussion generated mixed results by the meeting's end. Some business owners remained undecided about ending indoor service at the 5 p.m. deadline but others planned to continue despite the governor's order.
The Castle Pines restaurant owners said they were among the undecided as of the lunch hour but knew the red level restrictions would shutter their business if the state does not change course, they said.
The duo said Polis left them flummoxed by allowing establishments like salons to continue in-person service but not restaurants.
They also doubt restaurants are a significant contributor behind COVID-19's spread in the community and wanted to know what data supported closing indoor dining.
Among local COVID-19 cases, restaurants were the second most-common place people reported going in the 14 days prior to the onset of their illness, accordingto Tri-County Health Department data.
The partners felt fearful of public brushback should they defy orders. They watched in May as Castle Rock eatery C&C Coffee and Kitchen opened to large crowds on Mother's Day despite a ban on indoor dining.
Patrons packed the restaurant and masks were scarce as a line formed out the door. Footage went viral and drew national attention.
The Castle Pines restaurant owners disapprove of how C&C handled the reopening. They have strictly followed COVID-19 safety protocols and will continue doing so, they said.
But the restaurant will not survive until Christmas on outside dining, to-go and delivery orders alone, they said, leading them to consider noncompliance.
“We don't want to be political,” one of the co-owners said. “We know this is civil disobedience but it's a peaceful protest.”
Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray said he and other councilmembers had been in contact with area restaurants considering opening illegally.
Gray said he empathizes with restaurant owners. He opened his coffee shop Crowfoot Valley Coffee 21 years ago and doesn't know if it will survive red-level restrictions.
“I think that as a restaurant owner or café owner myself, who is losing money hand over fist, I get it. And I'm really upset too, and I don't exactly understand the order,” he said.
His coffee shop is down 25%, or more than $100,000 for the year, Gray said.
The mayor would not condemn or condone restaurants defying public health orders but issued a stern warning: Doing so could risk the entire business.
Restaurants could gain and lose customers based on the decision but also lose grant or loan money, Gray said.
If a restaurant “basically tells the government to stuff it,” Gray said, “Well they have the right to take back their money.”
Then there are potential crackdowns by local and state health agencies for noncompliance.
“My worry is that if restaurants decide not to comply, I just want to make sure they do so with eyes wide open,” he said.
The town is launching its third round of small business grants on Nov. 23 and is likely to call an emergency council meeting on Nov. 24 to discuss additional aid during the red phase.
Gray is critical of the state and federal government for not providing more financial aid to business during the pandemic's third wave and lambasted Colorado elected leaders for banning indoor dining with no stimulus dollars at the ready.
Donna Stern, who co-owns MiYO Café in Castle Rock, said she doesn't blame businesses considering noncompliance, but she doesn't believe it's a smart business decision.
“I would love to fight, but who's going to win?" she said.
As she weathered the spring shutdown, Stern considered a good day any day she could break even. This time, she expects to survive as well, but had to lay off seven of her 12 employees on Nov. 20.
Letting people go is the hardest part for her as a restaurant owner because many employees in the industry live day-to-day, she said.
Nov. 20 was a bustling day at the all-day breakfast café. Loyal patrons streamed in and out until the 2 p.m. close time. She hopes the community remembers her in the coming days.
“I'm not looking forward to tomorrow,” Stern said. “We did it before, we'll do it again.”
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