Aspen Institute dishes out food for thought during the age of coronavirus |

Aspen Institute dishes out food for thought during the age of coronavirus

People dine outside of Bear Den in Aspen on a warm spring afternoon on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Aspen Institute and some restaurant-industry heavyweights have rolled out a set of universal guidelines for both dining establishments and the people who frequent them in the COVID-19 era.

Called “Safety First: Protecting Workers and Diners as Restaurants Reopen,” the industry standards were put together by the Institute’s Food and Safety Program in collaboration with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, the James Beard Foundation, the National Restaurant Association, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and One Fair Wage.

Safety First includes a Diner Code of Conduct and what’s expected from restaurant patrons while dining indoors, Our Covid Pledge for restaurant owners and operators, and a set of ventilation guidelines for restaurants.

“What we found is that if we kept things sufficiently general and high level, and ‘here’s what you absolutely need to do,’ that advice doesn’t change much,” said Corby Kummer, executive director of the Food and Society Program.

For restaurants in the Pitkin County area, the guidelines closely reflect what a number of them already are doing to stay open and serve as many patrons as restrictions allow.

“It’s great to know that we’re doing a lot of these things already in Colorado,” said Jordana Sabella, the county’s interim director of public health.

For patrons of restaurants, Safety First includes a code of conduct for people eating out at a time when their behavior can reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

Safety First is a meaty document — 74 pages and all, including an appendix — but some of its key information is boiled down into one-page summaries for restaurants to publicly display.

“We hope that diners will feel safer and more confident if they see a code of conduct and the COVID pledge,” Kummer said.

Its release comes at a time when restaurants throughout the country are gradually opening to more people as vaccinations become more widely available and case counts lower. However, similar to how public health officials remain adamant people remain vigilant to reduce the risk of the virus’ spread, so too does the “Safety First” document.

“We’ve fine-tuned Safety First to meet the on-the-ground needs of restaurants as they reopen as quickly, economically, and safely as possible — translating the science of health officials and engineering associations into the day-to-day realities of businesses small and large,” Kummer wrote in an introduction to Safety First. “That’s what restaurants told us they needed, and health departments told us too.”

Safety First also cautions people who’ve been vaccinated against easing up on their preventative behavior.

“Because it is not known whether vaccination prevents spread of COVID — and because questions remain about the effectiveness of currently available vaccines against all emerging variants — people who are vaccinated still need to wear masks, practice physical distancing, frequently wash or sanitize their hands, and follow all other recommendations for preventing spread of COVID.”

On Saturday, restaurants in the Aspen area were allowed to expand their indoor-dining capacities with Pitkin County’s return to yellow-level health restrictions.

Yellow allows restaurants to operate at 50% of their posted capacity limit, while the figure cannot top 150 patrons per room and final drinks are served at 1 a.m. Orange, the level under which the county had been for since March 24, held restaurants to 25% capacity, a maximum of 50 people per room, and last call for alcohol at midnight.

A state program, however, allows restaurants that meet rigorous criteria addressing COVID-19 to operate a color level down from the one currently in place.

As of Friday, 56 restaurants in Pitkin County were certified under the 5 Star State Certification Program for Colorado, which permitted them to operate under the more relaxed yellow level level when the county was mired in orange.

Five-star businesses “are required to do daily employee symptoms and exposure checks,” explained JoAnna Coffey, the county’s consumer and employee health protection supervisor. As well, certified restaurants screen customers for symptoms and record their names and contact information in the event of exposure.

The Safety First document emphasized, “All workers — restaurant workers and visiting workers — should be briefly screened for COVID upon arrival at the restaurant. Screening should aim to determine if workers (a) have been diagnosed with COVID, have tested positive for COVID (even if they do not have symptoms), or have had fever or other symptoms of COVID, in the past 10 days; (b) currently have a current fever (temperature of 100.4° F or 38° C or greater); or (c) have had close contact with someone with COVID in the past 14 days.”

Aspen restaurateur Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s: An American Bar & Grill, said the Safety First documents covers a lot of ground but he would have preferred to see it more condensed.

He did, however, note two positive takeaways from Safety First, including its suggestion that restaurants “consider creating separate teams of staff to work on alternate days or shifts, so if an exposure to COVID occurs on one day or shift, only the team working that day or shift will be affected.”

Said Yeager: “The greatest risk is an exposure that quarantines too great of a number of employees that the restaurant cannot operate leading to a voluntary closure. This concept is something we have employed all year and would likely keep us up and running should we have a problem.”

As well, the guidelines make no reference to “social distancing.” They instead employ the term “physical distancing.” In this case, words do matter, Yeager suggested.

“Finally, a document using the term ‘physical distancing,’” he said. “Restaurants provide more than a meal, as we provide a much needed social experience and the common usage of ’social distancing’ is harmful. It subconsciously interferes with the premise of hospitality. It’s a human need to feel socially connected and cans still be achieved regardless of being physically distanced.”

One aspect of distancing remains a major challenge for local restaurants, and that’s the space between tables. Whether levels orange, yellow or even blue — which permits 100% indoor capacity — restaurants still must keep tables 6 feet apart under Colorado public health orders.

With the 6-foot restriction, Yeager noted, restaurants in Aspen, because of their size, are limited to how many diners they can accommodate at one time.

Safety First suggests that restaurants could have tables closer together with barriers between them.

“Tables should be spaced to provide at least six feet between adjacent tables, as measured from chairback to chairback,” the document said, but noted, “Tables may be able to be placed more closely if separated by partial Plexiglass or polycarbonate cough and sneeze barriers designed to block horizontal air flow between tables and help divert air upward.”

Sabella said that aspect of the report is something county health might review for consideration.

To help launch the Safety First endeavor, the Institute also received financial support from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

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