Searching for Positivity in Our New Reality
I biked to the top of Independence Pass last weekend for the first time and all I got was a piece of cheese. I wasn’t expecting a snack at the summit, since I embarked on the journey grossly unprepared. So when a woman who asked me to take her photo offered up a Mini Babybel, I nearly leapt forward to accept it. Though small, the bite-size gift was a memorable bright spot amid a swirl of difficulty and negativity. It wasn’t nearly enough fuel, but I was grateful regardless.
My journey was born of emotional distress and driven by an aching sense of urgency. On Sunday I set out on this last-chance mission — the road would open to motor vehicles on Monday — hoping to escape, physically and mentally, from the squall of bad news in Aspen and around the country.
As a food columnist I’m finding it hard to stay upbeat. Many of my conversations are steeped in doom and gloom. While Aspen’s spirit is optimistic as always and full of fresh creative energy, there’s a distinct undercurrent of fear and sadness that is tough to accept. I’ve been working on a passion project that involves more than 60 local restaurants, so I feel lucky to have purpose and legitimate reason to visit chefs and restaurateurs in person or stay connected via phone. However, these meetings and talks present a steady stream of unfortunate updates, letdowns and anxieties about the future.
We’re all watching owners throw Hail Mary passes in attempts to keep businesses viable with new services. There are many pleas for help and a lot of unanswered questions.
I don’t have answers, and often I don’t know how to respond, so I smile weakly. Any attempt at consolation sounds lame. I don’t have suggestions, because there is nothing from our past or my experience to base them on. There is no rulebook for how to play out a pandemic.
Last week, Aspen restaurants began reopening for dine-in service with new precautions in place. Everyone appears hopeful. Summer is here, yet it’s tinged with sadness. It’s difficult to hear the owner of a beloved restaurant tell me his request for financial assistance was rejected by the city, despite supporting his community for 23 years. It’s devastating to hear that local friends have quietly raised a white flag and will close their eatery for good. And it’s unnerving to hear a longtime proprietor admit that her company will likely not make money this summer and suggest there is no other option than to hope to survive long enough to get another chance in winter.
Then what? What will happen to Aspen’s bar menu culture without patrons being able to actually sit at bars? Some say Aspen will never be the same, and maybe it won’t. Our dining scene is built on closeness, which is being scrubbed away to adhere to new health regulations. These are meant to protect the public, but one can’t help but see that they are deeply damaging to businesses built on social interaction.
Then I take a walk through town, and I see creations springing forth: patio seating being built, chairs spaced over new terrain. Some restaurants are moving mostly outside, as if Aspen’s dining scene is becoming reborn en plein air. Then it rains, and the reality of our situation becomes apparent.
What happens to restaurants that don’t have additional outdoor space available? How do they make up for lost seats inside the restaurant? Already our new way of living and doing business is highlighting inequality among our local businesses. I’m all for expanded outdoor dining, elimination of old rules, creative workarounds to add value without major additional cost to already strapped venues. But many of the business owners who need help the most will still be left out or broken by the financial strain of these sudden changes.
With every social event literally wiped off the summer menu, perhaps locals and visitors will spend more time outdoors, at restaurants. Instead of attending those (canceled) events, maybe folks will show up, dine out more, fill the outdoor patios, stay in place when rain starts to sprinkle? Could summer in Aspen look even more vibrant and cohesive as a result?
If every local makes a commitment to offer up a piece of cheese, might that create a big enough snack to tide us over until better days? Here’s hoping.