Sonia Riggs

Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, in an Oct. 13 news conference with Gov. Jared Polis.

Gov. Jared Polis, flanked by restaurateurs and Xcel President Alice Jackson, on Tuesday announced a new grant program and an Oct. 19 workshop designed to help restaurant owners figure out how to keep going in the cold winter ahead, despite an alarming growth in the COVID-19 pandemic in Colorado.

Perhaps no industry has been more critical of Polis' handling of the pandemic than the restaurant industry, which has fought the governor in court and complained that his limits on restaurant capacity and "last call" orders are strangling many restaurants into bankruptcy.

Over the weekend, Chris Fusilier, who had been the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state from the Tavern League of Colorado, announced he had spent 30 minutes talking to Polis over Zoom, a call he said the governor initiated.

Fusilier, owner of Denver's Blake Street Tavern, said in a series of tweets Polis was "very empathetic about the struggles restaurants/bars are experiencing + will encounter more with Winter!"

He also said he was "shocked" to receive the invite from the governor, given that they had sued him over the capacity limits, a lawsuit abandoned in September. "But, I was extremely encouraged today by the Gov addressing our concerns," he tweeted. Fusilier said the topics included eliminating early Last Call, or a statewide uniform Last Call, enacting a bill in the next General Assembly for bars to close at 4 a.m., increase indoor capacity and winter outdoor dining.

At Tuesday's news conference, Polis announced several initiatives on winter outdoor dining, joined by Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, and Aileen Reilly, owner of Beast + Bottle and Coperta, two Uptown Denver restaurants. 

Jackson announced Xcel Energy and its Xcel Energy Foundation would contribute a maximum of $750,000 to support restaurants during the winter dining season. "Many will not make it through the season if companies and communities do not help them increase overall capacity," Jackson said, and the Xcel funds, with some requiring matching donations through the COVID-19 Relief fund, to find ways for restaurants to winterize spaces to allow for more year-round usable space and capacity. 

"This is one of the single largest gifts we've made in Colorado in company history," Jackson said.

The Oct. 19 workshop is a collaboration between the restaurant association and the American Council of Engineering Companies of Colorado, the American Institute of Architects Colorado and the Associated General Contractors of Colorado. The workshop will pull together design professionals, contractors, public health officials, representatives from local fire departments, building officials and restaurateurs to come up with ideas for outdoor dining concepts through Colorado’s cold- weather months.

Riggs said the initiative will give restaurants "a fighting chance to survive this winter." The pandemic has been the greatest challenge to the restaurant industry in history, Riggs said. "Patio expansions and other measures have been critical to helping restaurants survive the summer," but they're worried about the winter. Riggs said 65% of restaurants say they will close within six months if nothing changes, especially since many will lose their outdoor dining spaces with the winter cold.

Reilly, who owns the two Denver restaurants with her husband and brother, said they have been trying to figure out the outdoor dining situation since the city of Denver announced its patio expansion program. They were able to move into parking lanes as well as a nearby lawn, but "we do all of this in the face of uncertainty" of the pandemic, she said. Even with the outdoor expansion, she said guests are uncertain about their safety; others don't want to follow the rules.

As a result, their sales are down 45%, they're dealing with product shortages and some products are three times the cost they were before the pandemic. Outdoor dining, also, is a significant capital expenditure, Reilly said, noting that last week's windstorm destroyed all of their outdoor dining tents, which she said they will not be able to replace.

Polis, whose previous executive orders have been more about restricting restaurant business than ensuring its survival, spoke at length about a willingness to support the industry, which he called part of the state's vibrant culture, one that supports jobs and creates community.

"We want to do everything we can to support this important industry," he said, adding that he wants the industry to bounce back from the pandemic. "We need to be more creative with the outdoor dining experience" with the winter months approaching, and he called on local governments to suspend ordinances against fire pits, for example, that could be used to heat small spaces for dining, or to help with tents or space heaters. 

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