COLORADO SPRINGS — The cheese comes out bubbling hot on Panino's namesake dish as it rolls out from the pizza oven and is boxed up for carry-out and delivery orders. Like all restaurateurs in El Paso County, this family-owned business has had to get creative to keep sales up at their trio of Colorado Springs eateries during the ongoing Level Red restrictions.
"It's definitely been pretty brutal, exhausting, emotional," said owner Bobby Lashwood.
They've started a promotion selling boxed lunches to neighboring businesses; a half Panino and a bag of potato chips for $8. The company also found a way to bottle their most popular mixed drinks in sealed plastic bottles, making it easier to carry them without spilling.
While they have propane-fueled space heaters for the patio, few diners are eager to request a table outdoors when the weather is this cold. Lashwood said the ongoing closure of the dining room has been his biggest obstacle.
"We've laid off about 60 percent of our staff and obviously, doing that the second time within in 7 or 8 months is pretty tough to do again," he said.
Friday marked the start of a fourth consecutive week of Level Red restrictions in the Pikes Peak Region. There was hope earlier this month that a new statewide 5-Star variance program might provide small businesses here, restaurants in particular, with a little bit of relief.
On December 4, members of 45 business groups including the Colorado Restaurant Association, National Federation of Independent Businesses, and the chambers of commerce from communities from around the state sent a letter asking Governor Polis to modify to COVID restriction framework using the Mesa County 5-Star variance model as a template, with a few adjustments.
Businesses who voluntarily apply for 5-Star rating can operate at restrictions one step lower on the COVID Dial provided they take additional health precautions.
On Wednesday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced the approval of a statewide 5-Star variance program. However, elected officials and business leaders in El Paso County said the plan delivers much less than what they were expecting.
"The state is using the 5-Star name to describe the program that's being released this week, but it's significantly different from the program that was tested successfully in Mesa County, and it's even significantly different from the proposal the state had circulated for public comment a week or two ago," said Rachel Beck, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC.
In their letter, the business groups had requested two key changes to the Mesa County model, a 50 percent capacity limit for all businesses regardless of the COVID Dial level, and a streamlining of applications and approvals by empowering counties to award the 5-Star variances. Both changes were omitted from the state plan.
Businesses can still apply to operate at a lower level of restrictions on the dial under the state plan. However, the 34 counties currently under Level Red restrictions must first show declines for a two week period in all three categories of COVID activity data (incidence rate, positivity, and hospitalizations) before businesses can apply for enrollment in the program.
"What restaurateurs desperately need is to reopen their dining rooms at significant capacity in order to keep their businesses open and they truly need direct cash and relief from all levels of government," said Mollie Steinemann, Local Government Affairs Manager for the Colorado Restaurant Association.
In a recent survey, she said 24 percent of their members reported they would not be able to survive one month of dining room closures. Steinemann points out that many counties currently at Level Red are approaching the one month mark.
A news release issued Wednesday by the Colorado State Joint Information Center indicated that businesses could begin applying for the 5-Star program on Friday. However, Beck from the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC pointed out that communities have not yet received the final written guidance from the state for how the program will work.
"In order to have a program, we do know the county would have to apply to the state, the state would have to approve the program and then businesses could apply," she said.
Some of the requirements for a restaurant to be approved would involve upgrading ventilation systems. Also, tables would have to be spaced 10 feet apart rather than the current six.
"Just the way our restaurant is laid out that restricts us pretty heavily. I wouldn't be able to bring many staff members back," Lashwood said.
Mark Waller, chair of the El Paso County Board of Commissioners said the state plan is full of red tape.
"It's a ton of red tape to even get the program up and running, and then after you have the program up and running, just based on the mandates from the state for the program, it's a lot of red tape for restaurant owners to apply," he said.
Waller and Beck indicated they plan to continue trying to persuade the governor to reconsider the current plan. In the meantime, Lashwood plans to keep doing what's right by following the existing restrictions while hoping that regulatory relief comes soon.
Buying gift cards and ordering carry-out and delivery can really help local restaurants.