Aspen restaurateurs choking on public health board’s decision to ban indoor dining
Thousands of workers will be out of a job come Sunday as the Pitkin County Board of Health limits restaurants to takeout, outdoor dining
Monday’s decision to close indoor dining has left a bad taste in the mouths of many restaurateurs and the roughly 1,500 restaurant workers between Aspen and Snowmass Village.
The Pitkin County Board of Health’s unanimously voted Monday to limit restaurants to takeout only starting Sunday and move into Red-level restrictions in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“I hope they made the right decision but I don’t think they did,” said Chris Lanter, co-owner of Cache Cache and Home Team BBQ.
Neither does Jimmy Yeager, co-owner of Jimmy’s restaurant.
“My takeaway is that the board has a scalpel in hand and we were the only thing in sight to cut,” he wrote in a text to county commissioner and board of health member Greg Poschman after Monday’s vote. “We’ve already been cut to 25%, but doctor it was the other leg you were supposed to operate on.”
Indoor dining is the only segment of the local economy that was eliminated as a result of the board’s decision, so retail, skiing and lodging all can operate at various levels.
“Restaurants are the low-hanging fruit,” Lanter lamented.
Deryk Cave of Mezzaluna said the addition that was built on the restaurant’s patio to accommodate more capacity under COVID restrictions was an expensive investment, and is a waste of money if he can’t serve people indoors.
“I’m not happy that they are just targeting the restaurants,” he said. “It is just moving the problem somewhere else because our fear is that people will be having parties at their houses.”
Cave, along with thousands of others who signed a petition urging the Board of Health to keep restaurants open, said if indoor dining closes, the whole economy should close.
Cave and Lanter also signed onto a guest commentary written by Yeager and his business partner Jessica Lischka printed in Monday’s Aspen Times that dozens of restaurant owners supported.
“It’s worse for the employees than the employers,” Lanter said of his 120 employees, adding he fears there will be a real mental health impact among valley residents. “When you lay off 1,500 people it’s going to have a ripple effect.”
Yeager, who employs 35 people, said he fears that if indoor dining stays closed for too long, people will cancel their vacations and ultimately change their traveling habits.
“If we don’t have the experience of a world-class resort, people aren’t coming here,” he said. “There’s a ramification to this and a bitterness.”
Restaurant owners said they know that members of the board of health are well meaning and think they are doing the right thing, and they don’t envy their difficult position in trying to rein in the exploding cases of COVID in the county.
Yeager begged members of the board via text at the end of Monday’s meeting to allow indoor dining through Saturday instead of the public health department’s recommendation of Thursday at 11:59 p.m.
The extra two days allows for restaurants to use their inventory, put some money in the pockets of owners and workers, and also potentially reduce the time closed as the incidence rate may drop this week and next, Yeager said.
The board will re-evaluate its decision in two weeks after looking at the incidence and positivity rate.
Meanwhile, Aspen Valley Hospital remains in the comfortable zone in terms of patient capacity.
Skiing is unaffected, as is air travel and lodging is reduced to 50% and limited to one household per unit.
This isn’t the first time that indoor dining has been shut down during the pandemic. When it first hit Aspen, restaurants closed to indoor seating from March 17 until June 3.
Yeager didn’t mince words in an email sent to elected officials and the Board of Health on Jan. 8 in advance of Monday’s meeting.
“A shutdown is complete abuse of power, irresponsible and could lead to consequences that some will never recover from,” he wrote. “Shutting down is a last-ditch effort and should only be considered if we were in a situation where we had to choose who lived and who died. We are far from that crisis situation. Remember, household spread is the number one area of spread based on your data collected. Shutting down restaurants will only promote more household time, which by your analysis is counter-productive. Stand with us if that is your choice and go on unemployment alongside us and our employees.”
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