Chris Fuselier, owner of the Blake Street Tavern at 2301 Blake Street, is temporarily closing his sports bar on January 1, but he hopes to be back once indoor spaces can reopen at partial capacity. The reason? It's just too damned cold out there to stay open in January, and tents with open sides aren't helping.
"The DDPHE [Denver Department of Public Health & Environment] visited about three weeks ago and said we were okay," Fuselier says of an inspection of his 40-by-90-foot tent, which had two opposite sides open at the time. "But ten days ago, another investigator showed up and said there was not enough ventilation. They said the sides had to be completely open from top to bottom and side to side."
So Fuselier made the adjustments, but servers and customers were miserable, even with high-powered gas heaters blowing warm air into the tent. "We took off two entire walls; it was 27 degrees, and my servers were out there for four hours freezing, and our customers weren't happy," the owner notes.
"The goal posts keep changing," Fuselier says. "When we finally got to 50 percent [capacity] in July and August, we weren't off tremendously compared to a year ago, but 25 percent really threw us a curveball. Nobody can survive on that."
Still, Blake Street persevered, making do with takeout food and patio seating, where guests enjoyed outdoor TVs, food and grub served in that giant tent. While many restaurants have added single-party tents and igloos to keep customers comfortable, Fuselier says that doesn't work for a sports bar. But that's not the only problem with the city's program, he explains.
Fuslier, who's a member of Mayor Michael Hancock's Economic Relief and Recovery Council, says he's driven around town and seen many covered patios that don't technically meet the standards his bar was held to; he says the rules are too vague and enforcement too arbitrary for restaurant and bar owners to maintain sure footing.
And the Colorado-wide push to add more winterized outdoor seating just hasn't been enough, he adds: "I think it's fool's gold for the governor and the state to say we have plenty of winter dining available — because we don't."
Like many other bars and restaurants, the Blake Street Tavern has had to furlough large numbers of employees. Fuselier says his staff numbers more than 100 employees in normal times, but he had to furlough people in March and November and is now running with just 25 employees, who will also have to be furloughed at the end of the year when the bar closes.
Fuselier sees January as a critical turning point. He points out that many of the COVID-based numbers used to assess overall safety are dropping in the city, and he thinks that Denver could move back to Level Orange, which would once again allow 25 percent capacity indoors — including that big tent with its flaps down. And then, if the City and County of Denver institutes Colorado's 5 Star Certification Program for restaurants, the Blake Street Tavern could apply to move to 50 percent capacity — a workable number to keep the business alive until the pandemic subsides.
The State of Colorado just launched the 5 Star Certification Program on December 18, and already Summit County has moved to begin approving restaurants, and Larimer County is also well on its way. But will Denver City Council act quickly enough to implement the 5 Star program to help out struggling businesses?
The answer is blowing in the wind.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.