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Colorado’s relaxed COVID-19 restaurant rules will help “very few,” industry says

Colorado’s rollback of coronavirus restrictions this week is being pitched as a much needed salve for the state’s beleaguered restaurant sector, but some industry players say the improvements are mostly just on paper.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s new COVID-19 protocols, which were rolled out Wednesday under a Dial 3.0 metric, allow eateries in Level Blue counties to operate at 100% capacity and restaurants in more restrictive Level Yellow counties to do the same as long they have 5-Star state certification.

But Sonia Riggs, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said simply increasing capacity limits “will help very few restaurants.”

“Restaurants are telling us that 6 feet of distancing more or less maxes them out at 50% capacity in the best-case scenario, which is what most of them have now,” she said. “In order for there to be a pathway to 100% occupancy, distancing requirements must be eased.”

Rayme Rossello, who owns Comida at The Stanley Marketplace in Aurora, said the new rules “help not at all” in getting more diners into her 135-capacity restaurant.

“Until the 6-foot distance between tables changes, there’s not much we can do to increase capacity,” Rossello said.

It’s time, she said, to re-examine that threshold, especially in light of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance last week saying that it’s safe for children in the classroom to cut their distance from each other in half — from 6 feet to 3 feet.

“We’re sitting next to each other on airplanes and we take off our masks to eat,” Rossello said.

Riggs said her organization has pushed the state to “align restrictions with the data.”

“We’ve asked that distancing requirements be decreased as case counts drop and vaccines become more prevalent,” she said.

It was only last month that public health experts told The Denver Post that restaurants remain “high risk” settings for COVID-19 transmission.

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director at CDPHE, lauded Coloradans in a press release Wednesday for the sacrifices they’ve made over the past year to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

“While this is still a time for caution, these changes to the dial better reflect where we are in the pandemic today, and the balance we are trying to strike between disease suppression and economic hardship,” she said.

Chris Fuselier, owner of Blake Street Tavern, said while the new protocols won’t help him pack in any more people into his 800-capacity restaurant than he can now, the changes are valuable as “a marketing tool.”

“Saying you’re at 100% sounds so much better than saying you’re at 50%,” he said.

Fuselier said most of the states surrounding Colorado are already at full capacity inside their restaurants. He’s ready for a socially distanced crowd next week when the Rockies play their first home game of the 2021 season. Last year, there was no baseball in April.

But with the 6-foot rule still in place, he can only get about 350 people into his business.

“We need to get to 3-foot distancing,” he said. “That would be game-changer.”

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