Common themes behind Garfield County restaurant decisions to close or open indoor dining under tightened COVID-19 rules

Many waiting to see how things sort out between Garfield County and state

A group of restaurant patrons take advantage of the outdoor seating area in Bethel Plaza while visiting Glenwood Springs from Dallas.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Restaurateurs choosing to stay open and those closing dine-in service at least agree on one thing: their decisions are driven by staff and the general welfare of Garfield County.

“We’re going to follow the state,” said A.J. Hasbrouck, manager at Masala & Curry on Cooper Avenue in downtown Glenwood Springs. “They’re kind of our boss, and we feel we have to follow the state guidelines in this case.”

For Jessica Hale, owner of Atina Bar & Grille in Carbondale, and Don Andre, owner of Sammy’s Rocky Mountain Steakhouse in Rifle, that simply wasn’t an option.

“They’ve not made it easy,” Hale said of the conflicting rules between Garfield County and the state. “But I have decided to stay open until I hear something different from our health inspector.

“We have to try to make a living and keep the doors open,” she said. “We can’t survive on takeout.”

Atina has adapted, though, Hale said, offering several ramen noodle items that are more takeout friendly, and partnering with a local rental company to set up igloo dining structures at the Dallenbach Ranch above Basalt for a Sunday night sake and ramen tasting event.

Andre, in a Dec. 10 Facebook post — the same day the state’s red-level restrictions went into effect — addressed the differing state and county rules.

He, and many other Rifle-area restaurants, have decided to stay open.

“For now, all remains the same, but be prepared for more news on that front,” Andre wrote. “That being said, we are seeing a dramatic downturn in revenue and will be forced to trim the schedule and menu.”

A sign posted outside Masala and Curry in downtown Glenwood stating they are only open for take out or outdoor seating.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Difficult decisions

Every restaurateur in the county faces the same dilemma, after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) moved the county to level red on its coronavirus metrics dial, effective Dec. 10.

As of Tuesday, Garfield County had seen its highest two-week total of new COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began last spring, at 812, with a two-week incidence rate of 1,296 cases per 100,000 people.

That puts the county solidly at level red (severe risk of disease spread) for restrictions on business activity, events and social gatherings.

Still, a 13.6% test positivity rate for the county and an improving hospital capacity (10 of the last 14 days with stable or declining hospitalizations) puts the county between the yellow (concerned) and orange (high risk) restriction levels.

Under Colorado public health orders, level red means restaurants are to suspend indoor dining services and limit their operations to takeout and curbside service, or outdoor seating where feasible.

Garfield County commissioners, however, have made it clear they aren’t budging from their own modified restrictions, which keeps restaurants at 50% indoor capacity, with public health protocols such as mask wearing, distancing and regular disinfecting.

Commissioners reiterated that position this week, and on Wednesday will formally consider a resolution seeking to classify indoor dining, along with gyms and fitness centers, as “critical businesses,” exempt from the stricter level-red rules.

Coupled with the commissioners’ position that variances granted to the county back in May should remain in place, it’s viewed as an extra security measure for those particular sectors.

A restaurant patron takes a to-go order from Grind in downtown Glenwood.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Safety first

The increase in COVID-19 cases and heightened concerns about disease spread came as Juicy Lucy’s Steakhouse in Glenwood Springs had just reopened under new ownership.

“We made immediate arrangements with the kitchen staff and our employees to shut down, just like the state asked us to,” Nancy Aguilar, Juicy Lucy’s general manager, said.

“We know the levels are rising, and cases are up,” she said Tuesday, as modest lunchtime takeout business continued. “We are concerned for our work family, and our community, and we have a huge responsibility to try to do the right thing.”

To help make it fair and share the load, she said the staff is working a rotating schedule of reduced hours.

“They understand what the situation is, and we’re just trying to keep everyone safe,” Aguilar said. “We’ll operate this way until the state indicates something different.”

Masala & Curry’s Hasbrouck agreed.

“The numbers are just too high right now to risk it,” she said. “We have to respect that, and respect our doctors and nurses and frontline workers out there. We’re all in it together.”

Hasbrouck acknowledged, though, that she respects why others made the decision they did to stay open for indoor dining.

“Takeout is about half our business anyway, so it was easier for us,” she said. “I’m very proud of all the restaurants, because it’s a really hard decision.”

Grind Glenwood owner Chris Heinz speaks about having no option but to furlough a majority of his staff during the recent COVID restrictions.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Chris Heinz, owner at the Grind in downtown Glenwood Springs, said he was only able to keep his management staff on with the switch to takeout only. That could change if things stay the way they are, he said.

“The weekend wasn’t terrible, but it wasn’t good by any means,” Heinz said. “Yesterday (Monday) we spent more on labor than we had in sales. We can’t do that for long.”

Heinz said he’s hopeful that the county, city and state health officials are successful in creating some version of the “5-Star” program in Mesa County, which allows restaurants and other businesses to operate at greater levels than the state COVID dial says, if they can meet a higher public health standard.

“We were already doing everything that has in it, except for recording all of our guests,” Heinz said. “If we can get something like that, I think it will be of some benefit.”

Much of his staff is able to hang on, he said, because they also work in ski resort jobs. “As long as that stays open, we can keep people around,” Heinz said.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.