It’s beginning to look a lot like 2020 all over again for restaurants around Denver.
In the thick of one of the busiest seasons of the year, some of the city’s top dining establishments have closed temporarily as employees test positive for COVID-19. State officials say the highly transmissible omicron variant has become widespread in Colorado as of Wednesday.
“We burned through 20 rapid tests in two hours,” said Tommy Lee, a Denver restaurateur who closed one of his three popular dinner spots, Uncle in Highland, through Sunday due to breakthrough infections among staff.
“Everything we’re seeing is that omicron is hitting hard and fast,” said Fiona Arnold, who on Monday announced that her bar Room for Milly would close for the rest of 2021. Arnold and her team made the conservative decision to close for two weeks after just one person on staff tested positive.
“There’s really no guidance,” she said. “But honestly, there’s been so many iterations of this thing, I think we are pretty confident to just make our own decisions at this point.”
As restaurateurs debate closing over the holidays, they’re weighing public health concerns against the promise of year-end revenue, staffing shortages against worsening worker fatigue, and all of the unknowns of the omicron variant against lagging guidelines for a frontline industry.
According to the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment’s COVID-19 team, as of this week, anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 should still isolate for a minimum of 10 days or until symptoms have improved, regardless of vaccination status. And restaurant workers can best protect themselves by getting vaccinated and boosted, wearing a mask indoors and getting tested if they experience symptoms or are exposed.
“But this is a new dimension,” Jake Soffes said of what he and industry colleagues are experiencing. The restaurateur owns three Denver bars and closed one of them, The Wild, through Sunday due to COVID-19 cases among “three individuals who are vaccinated and boosted, so you can imagine our surprise.”
“We’ve only closed our doors to the public when it was mandated (before),” Soffes said. “Now it’s the busiest time of year for all of us. What are you supposed to do when you’ve got 30% of your staff that can’t work for a week and a half?”
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment maintains that fully vaccinated individuals don’t need to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19, “however, we recommend that vaccinated individuals get a COVID-19 test five to seven days after exposure and wear a mask in public for 14 days after exposure or until they have a negative test result,” the health department says.
Early data also shows that two doses and a booster of any COVID-19 mRNA vaccine (such as Pfizer or Moderna) also provide the best protection against the omicron variant, according to state health officials.
Canceling holiday parties, celebratory dinners and more special occasions this season isn’t something business owners take lightly, especially after nearly two years of pandemic restrictions to their business. But they also say they aren’t messing around with a more contagious variant of the virus, not to mention the mental health of their employees after 21 months in a pandemic.
“We’ll lose six figures in sales probably over the next month, but that’s OK,” said Juan Padro, who this week has shuttered three restaurants temporarily — Ash’Kara, Señor Bear and A5 — as staff test positive for COVID-19. “Is it a tough pill to swallow? Yeah, but we’re going to try to set an example here.”
For Padro, the issue as a business owner is two-fold: “Let’s look at ways to keep as much as we can open and not make a mental health issue worse than it already is,” he said. “There’s COVID (concerns), stress with the holidays, being understaffed… Plus we have a responsibility to have healthy businesses, so these people have jobs to come back to when they’re healthy, too.”
For some owners, the answer is simpler still.
On Tuesday night, the small staff at Dio Mio, a counter-service Italian restaurant on Larimer Street, prepped for their last dinner service of the year. On Thursday, they’ll do the same for sister restaurant Redeemer, down the block.
Chef-owners Spencer White and Alex Figura debuted their second restaurant, a pizza place, earlier this year and decided that what they need now is a real pandemic break.
“This pandemic is dangerous enough as it is, but more should be said of the effects on mental health,” said LuLu Clair, the restaurants’ director of communications. “We all need to make money to live and to keep these businesses open, of course, but we made a choice to put ourselves and our people first.”
And just like anyone else around the holidays, “it was important to us to give (staff) some extra time to recoup from the year, spend time with their loved ones if they can, and come back strong for next year,” Clair said.
Soffes, of The Wild, put what’s ahead for his industry more bluntly.
“There’s no safety net of Cares Act, (etc…),” he said, “those programs all ended. We’re not furloughing anybody, but even if we did, it takes a week for unemployment benefits to kick in. I think businesses are going to be coming out of pocket for all of this if they’re going to be supporting their teams.”
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