As the air gets colder, efforts to help Colorado's restaurant industry through the long winter ahead are heating up. Today Governor Jared Polis is scheduled to announce Let's Take This Outside, a two part-program designed to inspire creativity through an October 19 design workshop and then aid in the implementation of some of that creativity through grants.
Chris Fuselier, owner of the Blake Street Tavern and a prominent member of the Tavern League of Colorado, is always ready to fight for the survival of his industry. That's why he pushed suing the State of Colorado and the governor back in July, first over social distancing guidelines and other restrictions on bars and restaurants, then on the early last call announced the day the suit was filed.
He never has a problem taking a dispute outside, which is why he was surprised to hear from Governor Polis last Friday. Keep reading for Fuselier's take on that call and more, much more, in this first installment of our COVID-19 conversations.
Westword: Back in March, could you have predicted how long you'd be dealing with the pandemic?
Chris Fuselier: No, not all. I think we all thought a vaccine would come sooner rather than later. Now we're hearing late winter, spring, and even if there's a vaccine found, it's going to take a long time. Now, seven months into it, pandemic fatigue is really setting in.
Back in March, the big decision I had to make was this: Do I stay open for takeout and delivery, or do I close? The thing with Blake Street cuisine — we may have won Denver's best nachos from Westword, but the chips get soggy and they don't travel well. We're not pizza or Chinese. But we thought what the heck, we'd try it, and did it from March 17 to May 26. We actually lost money in the process, but I think people appreciated it. We were an alternative to a grocery store for them. I'm glad we did it.
When we reopened at the end of May, the governor was collaborative with us then. He sent proposed guidelines to our industry — the Colorado Restaurant Association, the Tavern League of Colorado— on Tuesday, and had a town hall two days later. He listened to us.
One of the crazy things he wanted to do was implement eight-feet distancing. I got on Google, and I'm like, "Where in the world is there eight feet? China?" I didn't find that anywhere. The universal wisdom says it should be six feet. Sure enough, when the finalized rules came out two days later, he'd switched it to six feet.
What changes did you have to make?
We lost a lot of staff. A lot of staffers were receiving federal unemployment and making more money than they were actually working...especially bartenders. One of the big restrictions is that bar stools have to be six feet away from wherever drinks and food are being prepared. Bartenders went from making $30 to $40 an hour to having no customers at the bar.
We had to pivot. We now have tip pooling with all servers, bartenders and hosts. That's a huge difference that we had to make just to keep our bartenders. Now they're averaging $25, but at least it's decent money. Servers are making the same amount as pre-COVID.
Managers are in the tip pool, too. There was frustration on some of my managers' parts, but the reality is that I couldn't pay managers out of my pocket. I have not received a salary; I've received nothing.
The timing was the absolute worst for many of us. Every year February is always terrible, even in great years...especially for a sports bar. But then we have the St. Patrick's Day parade — a $100,000 day, usually, this year $20,000. That was the first domino to fall, when the mayor canceled the parade. And then March Madness was canceled. Then no Rockies home opener, another $150,000 day.
It was really rough until May, rough even then. What helped me was when Denver enacted the patio program.
Describe how that worked for you.
I opened up a brand-new beer garden on half of my parking lot. Found out late on Friday about the outdoor expansion. I was like, great, I'm running over to Lowe's or Home Depot to get the patio furniture. I quickly find out that there's a patio furniture shortage at the end of May. I get a mishmash of tables and chairs from Target, IKEA, Walmart. There's just not enough. And then I thought, "I'm going to do eighteen 10x10 tents, like a tailgate." Two days later there's a wicked windstorm, and I lost nine tents.
Someone suggested that I get a big tent. I called Butler, they gave me a super rate — charged a two-day rate for the entire month. They were awesome. What saved me this summer was having this tent. We have a very small patio; with social distancing, there are just seven tables.
We're able to seat 140 people in our beer garden. And then we rented a big-screen TV from the same company that the Nuggets and Avs use. It's awesome, especially when sports returned in July; we could show playoff games. That's been great for us. We were fortunate we had a parking lot to do that in. The outdoor dining, that's where people feel most comfortable.
So what about this call from the governor? Had you talked to him before?
No. He has a very small inner circle, and we had talked to the governor's COVID policy advisory, Kacey Wulff, and Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado's Dr. Fauci with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but we weren't getting anywhere.
What happened is that we found out the indoor capacity limits in Colorado were numerical, whereas in 45 states they're based on fire-code occupancy, most at 50 percent. Blake Street has 900, it would be 450. But the governor and CDPHE did 50 per room or 50 percent, whichever is less. We found that to be very arbitrary. It shouldn't be one size fits all.
We couldn't get anywhere, and the Tavern League propelled the lawsuit against the state and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
We filed the lawsuit, and the same day, the governor comes out with 10 p.m last call. That just shocked us. The way I looked at it, it was retaliation. We amended our lawsuit that day, adding the governor, and filed for a temporary injunction hearing. We thought we would win on last call; we thought the judge would split the baby. But the judge ruled in the governor's favor — under the COVID rules now, the governor has very broad powers. There's just not a lot of case law. So we lost, and we found out how long an appeal would cost and how long it would take, and we dismissed the lawsuit.
The last-call move to 11 p.m., that came out of nowhere. We were praying for midnight; we thought midnight would look great for the governor, would look great for us...and then we were really steamed when the 11 p.m. order expired, about a week after the state had switched to the COVID-19 dial, with Denver, Boulder, Jeffco, level 2. He released a statement during the middle of the Bronco game that Arapahoe, Douglas county get to go to midnight. I was just so stunned...to do a public-health order without a press conference was chickenshit. My crowd, they absolutely will drive across the street to Glendale or down to Parker or Highlands Ranch. I brought that up, didn't get a response.
Then I get an email Friday, October 9, at 11:30 a.m., asking for a meeting at 4:15. I was shocked. We'd sued the governor!
The meeting was fantastic; it couldn't have gone any better. It was a thirty-minute Zoom meeting with me; Stephanie Fransen Hicks of the Tavern League; Phil and Erika Zierke, the owners of the Englewood Grand, who'd testified in the lawsuit; Wulff; Jacki Cooper Melmed, the governor's legal counsel; and the governor.
The governor listened. He asked what restrictions are hurting us, what are you seeing in other states?
We bought up indoor capacity. They have loosened some things there, not enough. We talked about last call. It really hurts us: We get a lot of service-industry workers, they're hungry, they can't make it by eleven. They're out of luck. The Englewood Grand, they're a small bar, they open at 4 p.m. daily, and they need those hours...they're traditionally open until 2. a.m. They can do midnight, but still, those extra two hours mean a lot.
And then I brought up the fact that I really don't like this idea of the governor tying last call to the dial system. The younger age group can't police themselves; we can make them do that. I said, "Governor, we said that at the lawsuit, we're the good guys here." The governor said, "You know, there are bars out there that are rogues."
I said that you need to look at that on a county-by-county basis. I've been inspected twice. In Denver, you don't hear about rogue bars. And you don't hear about them in Boulder.
Kacey asked about protection for restaurant workers. I said you should look at what Illinois is doing. It's now considered a felony assault if a patron abuses a restaurant or retail worker for trying to enforce COVID rules. We've had incidents at Blake Street, especially with the millennials. We don't mind being the mask police. Let us do that.
I think that it was a good meeting. He listened, he asked good questions. He said he would like to do a 4 a.m. closing for bars in the future. I said, "I love it, governor, but you have to make changes now. There are a lot of us who won't be around then. Many of us can't wait until that's passed."
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Where did he leave it?
I wrote an email, thank you very much for the meeting, here are the topics we discussed, we're available for followup. He didn't make any specific promises. He did say he would look at things. I'm really hopeful. It's all well and good if a politician tells you something, but actions speak louder than words.
According to statistics, 17 percent of full-service restaurants nationwide have already closed. By January 1, it could be 35 percent. I'm still negotiating a new deal with my landlord...if I don't get to a new deal, I'm going to have to close down. I pay $41,000 a month, based on me filling the joint with 900 people.
And I'm very fortunate. I'm now able to go with a bigger tent — from 30 x 70 to 40 x 90. I'm going for it. A lot of places don't have the building, don't have the money. Still, are Denverites going to put on their longjohns to go have dinner at Blake Street? No.
It's going to be a nuclear winter, and that's where the state, the CDPHE and the governor have to loosen things up.
This is the first in a series of weekly COVID-19 Conversations, talking with local business owners and institution heads on how they plan to survive the long, cold winter ahead. Have someone you'd like to suggest for the series? Send an email to email@example.com.