Restaurants are doing everything they can to maintain a revenue stream while also following shifting state and local COVID-19 guidelines to keep customers safe. As a result, it sometimes seems like one business is doing things differently than the next...and it probably is.
Here's a rundown of confusing situations you're likely to encounter, especially if you're dining outside your own community.
5 Star Restaurant Certification
The State of Colorado's restaurant certification program allows qualifying eateries to operate one dial level down from the county's designation as a whole. But counties must first apply for and be approved for the certification program, and then they can begin inspecting and approving restaurants. Some counties that were at Level Red, such as Douglas County, were approved for the 5 Star program before the end of 2020, so restaurants there were able to operate at Level Orange (25 percent capacity and 10 p.m. last call) late last year.
But when all Level Red counties were moved to Level Orange on January 4, even certified restaurants were not allowed to skip ahead to Level Yellow (50 percent capacity). The reasons for this seem a little convoluted, but the state has indicated that when a county moves to a new dial level, it must demonstrate at least two weeks of reduced COVID statistics in key areas (two-week cumulative incidence, two-week average positivity and hospitalizations) before restaurants can move a level.
Restaurants at Denver International Airport
Food-service operations at the airport have been operating under slightly different rules than other Denver restaurants for one primary reason: They're considered essential services, according to Alex Renteria, public information officer for Denver International Airport. Unlike restaurant guests, airport visitors aren't there specifically to eat; they're there to catch a flight. But flyers may need to eat while they're waiting, so regulations allow airport restaurants to seat at 50 percent capacity. Tables must be spaced at least six feet apart, and while bar seating is allowed, there must be at least six feet of distance between customers and any food and drink preparation. "We're being monitored by the CDPHE and DDPHE," Renteria notes.
She also adds that all airport visitors are expected to wear masks when they're not actively eating or drinking, even if they're sitting at a restaurant table or bar. So if you've finished your meal but you haven't put your mask back on, you may see an airport employee hold up a sign reminding you to mask up. This applies to people waiting at terminal seating, too; you're allowed to eat at gate seating (there's even an app called EatsDelivered that lets you have airport food brought to wherever you're waiting), but you must replace your mask when you're done.
Indoors vs. Outdoors
Under Level Red restrictions, which applied to Denver and the surrounding counties from November 20 to January 3, indoor dining at restaurants was completely banned, prompting debates about what was considered outdoor dining. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment posted fairly clear rules about how temporary outdoor structures could be configured to be considered outdoor seating — specifically, two non-adjacent, completely open sides, or anything without a roof — but there was confusion among restaurant owners and guests. At the Blake Street Tavern, owner Chris Fuselier said he was dinged by an inspector because the two open sides of his tent weren't open enough, and Sam's No. 3 downtown was briefly shut down for seating people on its glassed-in patio, which is officially registered with the city as a temporary structure even though it has walls and doors (which the restaurant was keeping open) and is not tent-like in any way.
Now that establishments are allowed to seat customers indoors at 25 percent capacity (or a maximum of fifty people) per room, the distinction between indoors and outdoors is less important. Businesses with the proper inspections and permits can seat customers in temporary enclosed structures, as long as they follow the same rules that apply to the permanent dining room. As for the single-party greenhouses, igloos, ice-fishing tents and other structures that have been popping up all over town, they've always been permissible as long as the business wipes them down and aerates them between uses. If you're concerned about airflow and the potential for coronavirus exposure, remember that the CDPHE considers anything with only one open side, or two adjacent sides open (leaving an enclosed one corner of the enclosure with reduced air circulation), to be indoors. And currently, tables must be at least six feet apart, whether indoors or outdoors.
Traditional buffets have been on the CDPHE's off-limits list since the beginning of the pandemic, to prevent restaurant customers from getting too close to each other and other people's food. But for eateries willing to invest a little extra in equipment and personnel, a buffet-like experience can be delivered. At Monarch Casino Resort Spa in Black Hawk, the buffet is back in business, but with some new safety measures. "We're running the buffet every Sunday through Thursday, with servers to serve customers," explains Erica Ferris, casino spokesperson.
Plexiglass has been added to the entire front of the buffet line so that you can see the food, but you can't serve yourself. Ferris notes that the buffet serves 120 different international menu items, and color-coded dots on the floor help guests line up in the right place — and at the right distance — to get the kind of cuisine they want. Then you simply point to the desired items, and a server on the opposite side of the station loads up your plate. There are breaks in the service line where your plate can be handed to you if you're not going all the way to the end, along with separate stations for dessert and other specialties to help spread out lines. The casino is following current Level Orange COVID restrictions in accordance with Gilpin County regulations.
Groups and Households
At Level Red, guests were only allowed to sit outdoors (including in single-party enclosed structures), and parties were required to be all from one household — a difficult regulation for restaurants to enforce. At Level Orange, the household restriction does not apply, though state and local agencies both recommend against mingling households for socializing at this point; personal gatherings in general are capped at ten people from no more than two households. Restaurants at Level Orange are capped at seating ten people per table, but many are choosing to limit groups to eight or fewer, so call ahead before you go.
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