An empty plate that had held loaded tater tots sat in front of Robert and Ashley Matthews on Dec. 30 as they waited for a server to bring their entrees, a jerk chicken sandwich and beef tenderloin. …
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An empty plate that had held loaded tater tots sat in front of Robert and Ashley Matthews on Dec. 30 as they waited for a server to bring their entrees, a jerk chicken sandwich and beef tenderloin.
The couple drove 40 minutes from their home in Denver to eat indoors at a restaurant, days after Douglas County was approved for the state's new Five Star program, greenlighting limited indoor dining for the first time in more than a month.
“It's very calming and just feels normal, but not normal at the same time,” Ashley said.
Their eatery of choice was Union American Bistro, which reopened to indoor dining on Dec. 29 under the Douglas County Covid Best Practices Business Certification Program, owner Kim Heideman said.
The return of indoor dining boosted her daily sales by roughly $2,000 the first day, she said, a welcome reprieve after business dropped more than 50% during the indoor dining ban.
“The weather being cold really cold hurt us,” she said.
The restaurant offers a heated and mostly enclosed patio with the necessary airflow, she said, but that hadn't been enough to draw in customers after the county shifted to level red status.
During the pandemic's first wave, Heideman was forced to lay off nearly all her staff outside the management team.
When the county shifted to level red on Nov. 20, she asked employees if anyone felt they had enough financial support at home to leave their positions voluntarily, rather than having to mandate who was laid off and who wasn't. Two women who were pregnant chose to leave, she said.
“You can't be shut down to limited capacity and have your full staff,” she said.
She kept all her kitchen staff but had to cut their hours, encouraging them to seek partial unemployment compensation. Small business grants from the Town of Castle Rock helped her pay overhead costs until she could bring more customers in.
Heideman called the return of indoor dining “a great feeling.” She converted a bar area that didn't allow for adequate social distancing into a wine shop. Tables are spaced out and some booths are closed off entirely. But there are people again.
“It feels like the restaurant has a really good energy again,” she said. “A busy restaurant has a buzz to it.”
Applying for the new Five Star program felt straightforward, she said, because her business was already doing most things required to qualify.
Castle Rock Mayor Jason Gray, whose coffee shop and cafe Crowfoot Valley Coffee also reopened under the program, said the approval process felt quick, he said.
Town staff worked overtime, including on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, to process applications, he said.
Allowing restaurants 25% capacity indoors “isn't huge,” Gray said, but it's an improvement. He is nervous about an uptick in COVID-19 cases amid the holiday season, but optimistic that businesses can slowly and safely reopen.
“That vaccine can't come soon enough,” he said.
He doubts the program will change the local economy much in the short term. What it brings is a sense of moving in a positive direction to local restaurants, he said. Gray believed pressure on the state from local leaders helped bring the program to Douglas County.
In recent weeks, local elected leaders and business owners became vocal critics of the decision to close indoor dining but not close large retailers. Many were skeptical of a link between restaurants and significant spread of COVID-19.
But when it came time to prepare for the program's rollout, an effort among leaders throughout the county, the Tri-County Health Department stood “arm in arm” with the county and its municipalities, Gray said.
A spokeswoman provided a statement from the Douglas County Board of Commissioners on the program's rollout, which credited leaders across the county for helping facilitate the program's launch.
“We see this as a lifeline for our business community and have been working for weeks in partnership with others, advocating for the needs of businesses, who made it clear they are willing to invest in additional COVID-19 safety measures in exchange for additional capacity,” the statement said.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon also provided a statement regarding the program's launch.
“Understanding that no government check can compensate for indefinite shutdowns, the Douglas County Covid Best Practices Business Certification Program is intended to give local businesses a fighting chance to open safely and survive,” he said.
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