Restaurants prepare for outdoor dining amid looming restrictions, winter weather |

Restaurants prepare for outdoor dining amid looming restrictions, winter weather

New COVID-19 restrictions pose logistical questions for restaurants

Aspen restaurant employees hold signs outside of Bear Den Aspen imploring community members to help keep restaurants open through the next COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

COVID-19 numbers are up. New restrictions go into place Thursday at 5 p.m. — though it is still not entirely clear what all of those restrictions will entail. And, of course, winter is coming.

The new restrictions will impact most sectors of local life and business, but Pitkin County officials won’t decide until Thursday afternoon at the Board of Health meeting whether those new guidelines will be in the “Orange” or “Red” level of severity.

Regardless of the color on the COVID dial, it is highly likely that restaurants will need to make provisions for outdoor dining; the state’s Orange level regulations would cap indoor capacity at 25% and Red level guidelines would ban indoor service entirely but allow for takeout and delivery.

A statewide public health order issued by Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday does not specify any capacity restrictions for outdoor dining under either level on the COVID dial but does establish a maximum party size of 10 and a required 6-foot distance between tables; Red level guidelines would also limit parties to members of the same household, but those regulations did not specify any Red level change to the 10-person maximum on party size.

It puts local eateries in a unique conundrum exacerbated by looming winter weather: How on Earth do you create an enjoyable outdoor dining experience in the middle of winter at 8,000 feet?

The answer is a bit different depending on where you look.

Some restaurants don’t have a choice: without enough space to seat more than a table or two outdoors, a number of venues would have to pivot to a takeout and delivery model if Red level restrictions go into place. Orange level restrictions from the state, with a 25% capacity indoors, would at least make operating feasible for establishments that can’t rely on outdoor dining.

Restaurants that do have outside seating are trying a number of different strategies to make open-air service a feasible (or even somewhat comfortable) experience for winter diners.

At Aspen Tap on South Galena Street, tents and heaters are a key part of the game plan, said General Manager Erin McLeod. The taproom and brewpub is prepared to ramp up takeout orders and provide heaters and covered seating for outdoor diners.

“It’s definitely something we’ve talked about,” McLeod said. The taproom and brewpub on South Galena Street has also been holding near-daily staff meetings to ensure employees are aware of restrictions and prepared to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing.

“These are things that we constantly have to be aware of,” McLeod said. “I know it’s challenging at times, but this is the reality.”

McCleod says that despite recent snowfall and cooler temperatures, the outdoor offerings at Aspen Tap haven’t seen much of a weather-related dip.

“Even on some chilly days recently, we’ve had people that have asked to sit outside,” McCleod said. “People are just layering up and prepared to dine outside.”

In Snowmass Base Village, outdoor diners may have Plexiglas wind barriers to keep out the cold, Director of Village Experience Dawn Blasberg said. Those barriers arrived a few days ago, but it’s up to the individual restaurants to install them as they see fit.

A number of village restaurants also have ordered extra heaters to combat chilly nights. But the tents-and-heaters combination posed too many fire and ventilation issues to be used effectively and safely in the village, Blasberg said.

Blasberg predicts that the upgraded outdoor dining setups will help keep the lunch and apres-ski scene alive. Dinner, however, could be a different story.

“I’m figuring the Plexiglas and the heaters will probably only extend happy hour (by) 45 minutes to an hour,” Blasberg said. “I think dinner — no matter how many heaters you have, and Plexiglas — you can’t eat dinner outside. Your dinner is going to get freezing cold in a minute.”

On-mountain dining at the ski resorts will likewise require some preparation and flexibility in the event of inclement weather, with tents offering protection from the elements, said Aspen Skiing Co. spokesperson Tucker Vest Burton.

The emphasis this year is on grab-and-go options at market-style eateries like the Sundeck at Aspen Mountain and Merry-Go-Round at Aspen Highlands. Tents and expanded outdoor eating areas will be accompanied by additional picnic tables available across all four mountains; full service options will be extremely limited, as most on-mountain, sit-down restaurants have little or no outdoor seating.

Keeping an open mind and embracing the changes will be the key to a successful year, Vest Burton said.

“Maybe you go into the restaurant and you grab your sandwich and you keep skiing … and you get more laps in, and then you go home,” Vest Burton said. “It’s going to be a little different, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Maybe pocket bacon is going to have a huge resurgence this year — I don’t know.”

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