DENVER — After two years of moving, adjusting, fighting, scraping and planning, restaurants in Colorado have been hit with another crisis. Already short on staff, restaurants now face the COVID-19 omicron variant.
The variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Colorado, going from less than 1% of new infections to now more than 92% in just two weeks. The variant is much more contagious than other strains, coinciding with the state's largest single day increase in cases since the pandemic began.
"This new variant, I think, is making it even more challenging because restaurateurs have already been finding it hard to staff their restaurants," said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. "Restaurants have been struggling for the last two years, and every time it feels like things are starting to get better, we get hit by new curveball. So it's a really hard time right now."
According to the Colorado Restaurant Association, 85% of their restaurant members were already struggling with staffing issues. That was before the new variant hit Colorado. Numerous restaurants across Colorado now must close because of the outbreak.
"We started getting more people calling in during our closure for Christmas, and we were forced to make a decision on Monday to close this week," said Alex Seidel, chef and owner of Mercantile Dining and Provision.
Seidel says the restaurant did not have a single staff member test positive for COVID-19 until last week. Now, he has six employees who have called out sick.
"The only thing we have been able to do to protect ourselves so far is to close," he said.
The state government has shied away from calling for another lockdown or new capacity limits in restaurants, even as cases continue to rise. Industry leaders say this is because the state is now solely focused on hospital capacity and ICU numbers. Fortunately, while the omicron variant is more transmissible, it is less deadly and has sent a smaller percentage of those infected to the hospital.
The CDC has also loosened its guidelines for quarantines amid the spike in cases. The health department says employees can quarantine for only five days now instead of 10. For some in the restaurant industry, this is a win.
"I think that's going to help with the staffing issue and being able to get people back to work sooner than we had originally thought," said Riggs. "Especially after people have been vaccinated, which many, many people in this industry have."
But others, like Seidel, are more concerned, saying five days might not be enough to make a full recovery.
"Is it helpful for the mental psyche of our team when we have been training them for 10 days?" asked Seidel. "It is also really difficult to be in a position like myself where I feel the responsibility of several hundred people."
As 2022 approaches, restaurant owners do agree that the beginning of 2022 is looking a lot like 2021.
"It feels more more of a uncharted territory for sure," said Fletter.