EL PASO COUNTY — More coronavirus cases in southern Colorado could mean more restrictions on places like restaurants, which are already at limited capacity. Many are preparing for the winter months, hoping they can still use their outdoor space, that's acted as a saving grace.
According to El Paso County Public Health, there is a statewide discussion right now regarding winter dining designs, ideas, and plans.
The number of people allowed inside a restaurant is dependent on the county's place in the state's dial framework. El Paso County is currently in the Safer at Home Level 1 - Cautious stage. However, public health said the local disease burden has "steeply increased."
On Monday, El Paso County hit two weeks of exceeding the incidence rate for Level 1, in addition to the positivity rate increasing. On Oct. 19, El Paso County's data read:
- Two-week incidence rate: 180.8
- Two-week test positivity rate: 4.93%
- Hospitalizations are increasing
Counties that exceed any of the three metrics for more than two weeks are required to consult with the state health department, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). If metrics have not returned to a certain level's threshold at the end of the consultation, then a county may move to a more restrictive level.
El Paso County Public Health had a conversation with CDPHE last week, and they have another meeting planned later this week. If the county did move to a more restrictive level, it would impact capacities across a variety of sectors, including restaurants.
The Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs launched Dine Out Downtown as a way to provide restaurants with some of the capacity lost due to pandemic precautions. This week is the last weekend of the single block closure on Tejon between Colorado Avenue and Pikes Peak Avenue. However, the Downtown Partnership has assisted 25 restaurants throughout the area with expanding their outdoor space, past the window of Dine Out Downtown.
"We know with the winter months coming up, with numbers already spiking, that indoor restrictions, indoor capacity restrictions will likely continue... The city has already approved permits through October of 2021 to allow these folks to continue their outdoor dining. As long as the state continues to come alongside the city in that regard and approves liquor licensing that allows for this expanded outdoor dining to continue, you know, we encourage folks to continue operating this added outdoor dining, this added capacity," said Alex Armani-Munn, the economic development specialist for the Downtown Partnership.
Plus, the Downtown Partnership also has a $250 grant program for restaurants to help offset the cost of outdoor heaters. Armani-Munn said they have already had around 15 applicants for the grants, one of which is Red Gravy.
"We're at 50% revenue if we're limited to being in here. If we're able to keep seating in the street, and people want to keep coming to eat outside with us, then we'll be able to do a bit better and hopefully make it through this whole thing," said Zak Popovich, the bar manager at Red Gravy.
In addition, Popovich said they will be one place to buy fleece blankets branded by the Downtown Partnership and Switchbacks. The blankets will cost $10 and will be available both online and throughout downtown businesses. "We're doing everything we can to keep people comfortable out there," said Popovich.
Armani-Munn said there is an opportunity for downtown businesses to be successful during the winter months. "We know that some of the hardest days are still ahead and that these months can really be some of our slowest months. We also know that December can be a really great month for restaurants and retail downtown. It's one of our highest grossing months, year after year," said Armani-Munn.
Still, this year has been tough for downtown. "At the peak of quarantine, and during the worst days, I believe in May, downtown restaurants were down as much as 60% in terms of gross sales... We're down over 30% on the year in terms of sales tax collections downtown. So, downtown has actually felt the impact of this crisis more than really any other part of the city," said Armani-Munn.
However, Armani-Munn said overall, the tone of downtown is positive right now. He pointed to the gross sales at the end of 2019, which rested at a ten year high. Downtown was in a good position going into the pandemic, which helped. Despite the impact to commercial activity, he said businesses are well-positioned to rebound in 2021. "We've actually seen more businesses open this year than close, and we expect several more businesses to be opening before the end of the year," said Armani-Munn.
Armani-Munn also mentioned that Downtown Colorado Springs has the highest concentration of locally owned bars, restaurants, and retailers in Southern Colorado, and 90% of street-level businesses there are locally owned.