Aspen braces itself for another restaurant shutdown
There’s a new bar in Aspen that perfectly sums up this period of time during the global pandemic: The Slippery Slope.
Stationed on the top floor of the Aspen Art Museum (AAM) and fully stocked with unopened bottles of booze on mirrored shelving, the installation by Los Angeles-based artist Adam Stamp is intended for real use. According to a museum statement, the A-frame sculpture is an “emotional support object … during a moment when social spaces and socializing is fraught, and as people struggle to find new ways to connect, gather, and celebrate.”
Stamp created napkins, matchbooks, bar paraphernalia, and even bartender uniforms for the piece, an homage to the winter sports culture that plays out on Aspen Mountain (itself in clear view when one stands before the smooth, wooden bar). While the structure is not in use currently due to COVID restrictions, its existence points to the other meaning of its name, “the general idea of falling down a bad path.”
On Monday, Pitkin County’s board of health voted to close indoor dining at restaurants, as Aspen moves into red-level restrictions on Sunday. The food and beverage community was vocal in its opposition to another restaurant shutdown, which crushed business last spring. One local owner noted that switching levels as if flicking a light switch creates a huge financial strain on restaurants, which purchase thousands of dollars of perishable food multiple times per week. Not to mention that hundreds upon hundreds of workers will lose jobs. Even the most robust takeout operation will not be able to accommodate the deluge of residents scrambling for employment when code red is enacted.
On Friday, Jan. 8, Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop launched a petition on Change.org: “Keep Restaurants Open.” The document fought back against the notion that the local government pandered to the restaurant industry at the expense of community wellbeing through this holiday season. As Meat & Cheese restaurant manager Sam Hayes writes in a plea: “The term ‘industry’ is too vague. We are 1,500 individuals.”
Throughout the pandemic, locals have been on the front lines, dealing with customers who don’t always follow the rules on social distancing and mask-wearing. Locals have suffered the financial stress of fewer customers as well as the mental strain of dealing with the 25% capacity limit that had been in effect since December. Based on anecdotal evidence, this dining population is comprised largely of visitors, some of whom still resist basic safety precautions. No matter how COVID-19 case investigators label “the restaurant industry,” another shutdown will negatively affect these employees who represent one-fifth of the Aspen population.
Taking a different viewpoint, some folks urged for shutdown now, when post-holiday traffic dips, in the hope that we can return to current capacity levels for President’s Day Weekend in mid-February and again during spring break in March and April. Neither option addresses the real driver of community spread: private gatherings.
Local government banned personal gatherings at private residences (including lodging accommodations) as of Dec. 22, but they’re still happening. I met a guy on Aspen Mountain last week who told me he was invited to a New Year’s Eve bash — “with a 50-person guest list!” he exclaimed. Yup.
By the time the county health board met Monday afternoon, Aspen’s “Keep Restaurants Open” petition on Change.org had garnered more than 3,200 signatures toward its goal of 5,000, showing apparent public support. I was hopeful for a resolution that did not unfairly punish some 1,500 workers and potentially lead to a wave of permanent restaurant closures.
Workers in restaurants, retail shops, and hotels are clearly exhausted from battling pushback from the visiting public. At AAM, SO Café manager Mary Daly was wiping down a table with disinfectant in the sunlight-filled dining room when she told me that she’s sick of it.
“Even with these,” she said, picking up a placard that implores guests to wear masks at all times, even when seated, unless actively eating or drinking. She gestured to an Italian couple behind me: The man had removed his mask, though he wasn’t eating or drinking. Fifteen minutes prior, I’d heard another employee mention mask-wearing to the table.
I tried to change the subject by commenting on “The Slippery Slope,” which sat unattended, polished and glistening in the afternoon sunlight.
“Hopefully we can use it, eventually!” Daly said. Alas.
Moving forward, we need a serious social shift with increased personal accountability. We need everyone — locals and visitors—to just say no to gathering. Businesses are maxed out on doing their part. Restaurants are closed, again.
As I finished my chopped salad and took a final swig of water before donning my mask, I noticed that the culprit couple had switched tables. I had to wonder if the move was a direct attempt to escape the sightline of workers stationed at the café kiosk. Or maybe the woman, who had pulled her mask down to shoot selfies from the roof deck outside, just wanted a better view of Aspen Mountain. Either way, their position at a two-top right by the entrance of a dining room that would close in less than a week was telling: on the edge of “The Slippery Slope.”
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook,” out now as a community fundraiser for local restaurants through the Aspen Board of Realtors. AspenCookbook.com