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State of Colorado's Message to Restaurants

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Fork Restaurants

Among its many attractions, Colorado Springs is known for its growing bistro and bar scene. Well, correction. Before this year, Colorado Springs actually had a bistro and bar scene.

But when the epicenter of post–Little League activities for nearly 50 years, Fargo’s Pizza on East Platte, closes its doors “indefinitely,” you can take it as an end-of-times sign for Springs eateries.

Since the government-mandated restrictions and lockdowns to battle COVID-19, the whole state has hundreds less restaurants. They will never return, including those in the Springs. They have all gone bankrupt, never to reopen.

And no, COVID-19 didn’t restrict a single bar or restaurant even temporarily. A virus, no matter how powerful, doesn’t have the legal authority to limit seating capacity or close a business’ doors. Only the government can do that.

Before we dive into Colorado’s war on bars and restaurants, let’s take a short trip in history to Moscow, Russia, on January 31, 1990. It’s the opening of the first McDonald’s behind the Iron Curtain. The line of people standing and waiting for a burger stretched well over a mile. Fortunately, Russians had a bit of practice standing in lines.

The big challenge for McDonald’s was training their new employees to smile for the customers and be pleasant to them. Not only was smiling against the cultural norms in this and, well, all Communist countries, it was particularly not done by restaurant staff. Why would they?

It seems odd to our Western sensibilities, but the person who wanted to be served in a Soviet restaurant was usually in the subservient position, roles reversed. Customers gave excellent service to restaurants.

When regular folks wanted to go eat out, they might put on their Sunday best clothes (well, since their government didn’t protect religious freedom, that’s likely not the right term, but you get the idea). They wanted to impress the restaurant staff in hopes of getting in.

If you looked like you might be a party insider, there was a better chance of getting served. If not, you needed to ingratiate yourself to the staff.

Stories abound of maître d’s standing in front of empty dining rooms telling a would-be customer, “Do you have a reservation? I’m sorry there’s nothing available.”

Open Indoor Dining

At press time, Colorado’s restaurant industry launched OpenIndoorDining.com to lobby Gov. Polis to reopen the state's suffering eateries to 50% capacity.

Why turn away paying guests? Well, without the profit motive, why let in anyone except important people who could reward you or cause you trouble if you didn’t seat them? Those suspected to be connected to or have influence with the Communist party got in. Otherwise, you hoped they took a liking to you.

In essence, the customer had to smile to the business.

And that is what is happening to restaurants throughout Colorado in the wave of governmental lockdowns and restrictions to “combat corona.”

In order to stay afloat, restaurant owners in Colorado realized that you and I are no longer the ones to try to satisfy. And it’s hard to blame them.

Bistro owners were ordered to turn away paying customers even though those customers paid their bills. In order to have a chance of survival, owners needed every grant and paycheck protection money they MIGHT be able to get from the government.

To Colorado restaurant owners, we folks who want a meal are no longer their paying customer. The government is.

One Colorado Springs executive I spoke with, who oversees several restaurants, says he now spends more than half his time working to get relief money from various governmental agencies. Government restrictions made him depend on government grants, bailouts, and PPP money.

So, who do the restaurants serve now?

Since most restaurants survive on very thin margins, there are two things that they must achieve to financially stay alive, the industry truths.

First, they must pack their dining rooms on Friday and Saturday nights to near full capacity. They don’t really break even the rest of the days. They have to have big weekends to make anything. That’s when the money is earned.

So cutting a restaurant to 25% of capacity or even 50% is a death sentence. And if it isn’t plainly clear, allowing no inside dining at all, especially in winter when outside seating is rarely an option, is a quick death.

And, second, they gotta sell booze. It’s the high-profit stuff. No chefs are required to prepare it; one barkeep can serve the whole place. Most places don’t stand a chance without selling liquor. Oh, in order to sell the stuff, you need a liquor license. And what the government gives, the government can take away.

Taking away a liquor license is a quick execution. Just the threat of suspending a license will get the most defiant restaurant owner to fall in line with government dictates.

So, of course, since March, state and local health boards have restricted and then eliminated all indoor seating capacity upon threat of getting your liquor license pulled.

Wait a minute. What the? Threat of losing your liquor license? Liquor?

Now, if your local eatery is selling tequila shots to eight-year-olds, well then, that seems like a liquor code violation and maybe worthy of suspension. But coronavirus is a health issue, not a liquor issue.

The HEALTH inspector can shut down a place for a lot of reasons, from workers not washing their hands to rats asking for menus. But these aren’t liquor violations.

So it takes some daring interpretations of the liquor laws to make the COVID-19 health issue a booze issue.

And what are these small business owners going to do? Take legal action? That would take years and potentially millions of dollars, and they can’t make payroll this week and might lose their house the week after that.

So,the liquor enforcement thugs have been sent in to scare restaurant owners into submission, I mean compliance, over this non-liquor issue. And, of course, it works.

That’s not to say that some restaurant owners faced with the no-win scenario of being forced out of business by complying and turning away customers or getting their liquor license yanked haven’t tried civil disobedience.

Early on in the restaurant lockdowns, a handful of renegade restaurateurs tried to take on leviathan. All who did so publicly lost.

Jennifer Hulan and her husband mortgaged their home, emptied their savings, and pulled money from their retirement funds to create Water’s Edge Winery and Bistro, located in Centennial.

It took five grueling years to get their business profitable, employing many people, allowing those folks to pay their own rents and the taxes to support others without work.

Hulan decided to illegally reopen her restaurant early May 1 with all the usual protections, including socially distanced tables, masked staff, etc.

Her workers were under no obligation to come in, but they did; so did her customers. All parties were fully informed and understood that freely associating inside was illegal. Ms. Hulan risked all she and her husband had, plus a potential year behind bars for it.

She, like every other restaurateur that tried it, was forced to back down when liquor enforcement and the unelected Tri-County Health Department threatened forced closure and a suspended liquor license.

If only a mass of restaurateurs decided to defy the shutdown orders all at once, well, you’d think the authorities wouldn’t be able to run around and shut them all down. Power to the people! Right?

Yep. So you’d think. But that experiment went awry in Loveland, Colorado.

Some 78 bars, restaurants, and other small businesses in Loveland had announced they, together, would break the law and stay open even though the county government ordered them shut.

The board of Larimer County Department of Public Health and Environment (LCDPHE) is appointed, not elected. They, like other health boards, can’t be voted out of office or recalled. They have no direct accountability to the citizens whose lives they are obliterating. But they do have the legal authority to close down businesses en masse.

Those Loveland businesses had already been struggling to survive after LCDPHE voted in their “level 2” (yellow), “safer at home” restrictions. That cut restaurant capacity to 50%, making it nearly impossible for these businesses to even survive.

In early December, that unelected board voted to escalate from that “level 2” (yellow), skipping “level 3” and jumping to the business-crushing authoritarian “level 4” (red). This closed all bars, closed all indoor service at restaurants, and stopped all indoor events, among other restrictions. They put no end date on their tyrannical order.

I have spoken to several of these restaurant owners, and each one told me the same unsolicited story of employees breaking down in tears in front of them. They couldn’t lose their jobs and still make ends meet. Many have worked at that place for years; they’re family. If the owners didn’t defy the law, there’d be no presents under the tree for their children.

If they followed the law, many eateries would go out of business anyway. A Hobson’s choice.

They collectively decided to stay open, all 78 of them. And what do you know? The sheriff said he wouldn’t shut them down. The city police said they wouldn’t shut them down. The Loveland city council said they would stand by the restaurateurs; so did their state senators and representatives of both parties. And, then, wait for it, even the local health department, LCDPHE, was giving them breathing room since they were operating safely.

But the state couldn’t let that happen for, if they did, other restaurant owners in other cities might band together to do the same, and before you know it, people could be eating safely in bistros all over the state. Owners would be paying their taxes rather than lobbying for bailouts, and employees would get paid, keeping them off unemployment insurance. Madness.

Yep. Like the Soviets rolling into Hungary to squash the rebellion, the state Liquor Enforcement Division drove up to Loveland and threatened to pull their licenses and kill their livelihoods.

The owners had no choice. They had to back down and hope that their new customer, government, would be kind to them and give them some cash after wrecking their small businesses.

When any surviving restaurants in Colorado Springs do reopen, don’t be surprised if you’re not greeted with smiles.

Sadly, you’re just not their customer anymore.