Relaxed COVID Restrictions Could Complicate Dining Scene

Governor Jared Polis (pictured at a March meeting with restaurant owners and government officials) is turning over COVID restrictions to local governments.
Governor Jared Polis (pictured at a March meeting with restaurant owners and government officials) is turning over COVID restrictions to local governments.
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April 16 will mark a major milestone in Colorado's response to the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the state since March 2020, when restrictions were first put in place to limit public interaction at businesses and gathering places. Governor Jared Polis has announced that the COVID Dial, first introduced by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment in September 2020 as a way of indicating county-by-county restrictions, will be phased out beginning tomorrow, April 16, with most COVID-based policies turned over to county officials.

Denver and most of the surrounding counties (Boulder, Broomfield, Arapahoe, Adams and Jefferson) will move to Level Blue starting tomorrow, and Arapahoe will move to Level Green. Assuming all goes according to plan, in thirty days these counties will move to Level Clear, an observation period that will run from May 16 to August 15 during which restrictions will be eased even further and COVID levels will be monitored closely to ensure a safe return to pre-COVID business levels.

Under levels Blue and Green, restaurants will be able to operate at 100 percent capacity — but still must maintain at least six feet of separation between tables. For all but the largest establishments, this will still mean limited seating capacity for the next month; most places have already hit maximum capacity until they can move tables closer together. That will happen under Level Clear, allowing restaurants to return to full capacity with no distancing restrictions.

Bars are getting a break starting tomorrow. Even if they don't offer some kind of food service — though at this point, very few bars haven't figured that out — they'll be able to open at 25 percent capacity for a maximum of 75 guests per room at Level Blue. At Level Green, they can run at 50 percent capacity. And for all bars and restaurants, last call is returning to the pre-COVID standard of 2 a.m. on April 16.

But don't throw your masks away just yet; state and local mask mandates will still be in effect for now. Denver just lifted its outdoor mask requirement, but they're still the rule inside all public spaces. "Based on key public health factors such as vaccinations, variants, case rates, hospitalizations and fatalities, Denver finds it necessary to maintain some capacity and distancing requirements for the next thirty days for both indoor and outdoor settings while continuing a phased relaxation of certain measures," the city said in an April 14 statement outlining the plan.

Restaurants, like the Yabby Hut in Lakewood, will be able to add more tables beginning May 16.EXPAND
Restaurants, like the Yabby Hut in Lakewood, will be able to add more tables beginning May 16.
Mark Antonation

The one outlier in the metro area is Douglas County, which is going rogue as of April 16. The county will allow businesses to set their own COVID health and safety restrictions, and they won't have to follow rules set by the state or the Tri-County Health Department (which also covers Arapahoe and Adams counties). State mask restrictions will still apply, however.

Other than Douglas County, the six counties have teamed up to keep the rules and regulations fairly consistent across the board, so county-hopping won't be much of a temptation for diners looking for packed and lively restaurants. But statewide, varying rules and regulations (or a lack of them) could cause confusion for tourists and day-trippers.

The Colorado Restaurant Association addressed this issue in a statement released after the new plan was announced. "We are grateful to Colorado’s local public health agencies for pushing vaccinations out to the public — and to restaurant workers, in particular — and for working to reopen our local economies and help restaurants safely get back to 100-percent capacity," said Sonia Riggs, the organization's president and CEO. "Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of each county establishing their own guidelines will be the creation of a competitive advantage for restaurants located in counties with fewer restrictions and the potential loss of business for restaurants in surrounding counties with stricter safety guidelines. We also have concerns about the confusion that a patchwork of local public health orders will create both for the industry and diners. We encourage local public health agencies to work to clearly communicate these changes so that the industry and its workers are not responsible for educating their customers about the specifics of this rapidly changing regulatory landscape.”

COVID cases and hospitalizations have been on the rise over the past month or so, but state and local officials are banking on a growing number of immunized Coloradans to turn the tide — and the new target of Level Clear is evidence that the governor and municipal leaders see business revitalization as important as public health and safety.

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