The return of restaurant dining offers an encouraging sign of life for the Mesa County economy.
Many restaurants have ramped up their takeout and delivery business during the stay at home order issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic But the low rate of positive COVID-19 cases and a willingness to adhere to safety measures mean local restaurants have the go-ahead to increase their dine-in capacity more quickly than in many other parts of Colorado.
“Mesa County is kind of leading the charge,” said Ashley Chasseur, whose Palisade restaurant, Pêche, reopened for on-site dining on May 29.
Mesa County Public Health has twice received approval from the State of Colorado for variances to statewide orders. The latest variance allows businesses to open at up to
50 percent of their capacity, not to exceed more than 175 people in a confined indoor space. To do so, businesses must submit a plan to MCPH indicating how they’ll follow best practices for safe operations.
While the reopening constitutes welcome news for many restaurant owners and their employees, shifting to a new way of doing business isn’t easy. Something as straightforward as a front door can present a problem to solve.
“We only have one entry. It’s an entry and an exit all together. In order to try to keep that as sanitary as possible, we have to really divide up the way the reservations are coming in, the times that people are coming in. You just have to think about all those things,” Chasseur said. “We are timing things and wiping the doors down and keeping it as sanitary as we possibly can.”
Regulations that keep workers and customers safe are nothing new for restaurant owners. “If we get one person sick, we’re done,” said Randy Emmons, owner of Randy’s Southside Diner and its three locations in Mesa County.
The coronavirus pandemic has complicated the process of maintaining restaurant safety because guidelines have changed as the pandemic has evolved. Prior to the pandemic, Mesa County Public Health employed a team of three to inspect and provide resources to retail food establishments. That team has temporarily expanded to 13 to accommodate the increased interaction required for restaurants and other businesses to open with appropriate safety precautions in place.
David Wang, an environmental health specialist at MCPH, said most restaurants have done their homework and are prepared when someone from the consumer protection team visits. But each restaurant encounters different challenges and considerations.
“They can be both prepared and have a lot of questions for us,” Wang said. “A lot of restaurants are unique. They might have special processes or have a unique way of doing something. We always appreciate them asking us if this is OK or if this is not OK. What do we think about this? And we’re always happy to give that feedback.”
The main role of the consumer protection team, especially during the pandemic, is to educate and provide resources so restaurants can operate safely and successfully, Wang said. One of the biggest challenges, however, is following best practices when some guidelines, such as wearing face coverings, create friction or even outright conflict with customers.
Emmons said he’s trying to do what’s right, keeping in mind the health and safety of his family — including a family member with a chronic health condition that could make her more susceptible to COVID-19 complications — as well as his employees and the community.
When some restaurants don’t enforce guidelines, it makes it more difficult for those restaurants that do, he said. “You’ve got the people that are scared out of their mind, that appreciate what we’re trying to do. And then you have other people that say we’re taking away their freedom.”
Chasseur and Emmons said they appreciate the support they’ve received from customers throughout the pandemic. Emmons said many customers now visit Randy’s for takeout, which went from about 2 percent of sales to 85 percent.
“To say thank you will never be enough,” Chasseur said. “They saved our business. It’s super emotional because for us. We’re not just a business. Our family is tied into it. Everything we have is tied into it. They saved so much more than just a restaurant.”