How Local Businesses Are Dealing With COVID

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, Larimer County has increased restrictions from Level Yellow to Level Red forcing local businesses to make changes.

Indoor dining capacities have been limited for months leading many restaurants to apply for permits from the city to allow additional outdoor seating and dining or extending it for certain businesses.

Caleb Tompson is a Colorado State University student working as a server at RARE Italian Restaurant in Old Town. In an interview he talked about how he’s been affected at work with the latest restrictions and the changes his work has had to make.

“As of a few weeks ago Larimer County entered a Code Red rating in terms of risk of contracting COVID 19. This restricts all dine in eating, while limiting us to outdoor dining and to-go options. Outdoor dining has all sorts of restrictions but we have greenhouse structures outside that are heated and for single party use only, are vented and sanitized before and after each dining. We have had staff cuts but I have seniority so I’m getting priority hours currently, but still I’m worried about how nothing going forward involving the industry is really guaranteed.”

According to Josh Birks the Economic Health and Redevelopment Director for the City of Fort Collins since 2012, the City received $9.0 million in Corona Virus Relief Funds from the State through Larimer County. These funds have been used in a variety of ways to support local businesses and residents. 2.5 million dollars of the CVRF went directly towards supporting local businesses.

Birks explained that $1.9 million was provided directly to 194 small businesses ranging from $3k to $15k based on industry, size, revenue, and need. These funds were provided to offset the economic loss from COVID-19 and does not need to be repaid.

With in-door dining being restricted, many restaurants are having to lay off staff during this holiday season. Unfortunately this was the case at Smokin Fins, a restaurant located on South College and East Horsetooth. Gabby Rilling was a hostess there who lost her job due to the latest restrictions and staff cuts. Rilling explained that Smokin Fins has reduced their workforce to just one server and one bartender; as they are only open for outdoor dining and takeout.

Rilling said that, “Before level red, I was concerned about the length of shifts because I was paid hourly. The shifts were significantly shorter because significantly less people were coming out to eat. After level red, everyone’s fears were recognized when they made extensive cuts in Front of House staff.”

She explained that Smokin Fins treated their staff both with kindness and fairness and that unfortunately cuts were a direct result of these extenuating circumstances.

Both Tompson and Rilling said a consistent issue working in the restaurant business are customers who refuse to follow the local face mask ordinances and social distancing. This has been an issue all over the news and social media and can be a very difficult situation for workers to face.

Some of the CoronaVirus Relief Funding did go towards de-escalation training for businesses dealing with mask enforcement. Fort Collins Environmental Health Offices currently provide free de-escalation training to all businesses in the city. This is training specifically designed to support employees that have to deal with customers that refuse to be in compliance of mask ordinances and other public health requirements.

According to the Pew Research Center in a study done in August, approximately 20% more Americans are wearing masks now then they were in June. In addition, in mountain regions like Colorado, the increased rates of wearing masks went up by 33% which is the largest increase in the county.

Ben Rovner, a Colorado State University horticulture student who often eats out said,

“For me personally, I think if people are just walking around outside keeping a safe distance you don’t need to wear a mask but if you are in an area with high traffic or restaurants it’s important to wear them. I think it’s difficult for small businesses to keep up especially for restaurants so it’s important for people to wear masks to help businesses remain open and keep the spread down so that the level red restriction can be reduced and businesses can keep staff on and resume to some normalcy.”

Rovner said that with restaurants in-door dining closed he and his girlfriend order food to-go four to six times a week as opposed to previously dining in. Rovner said that although it’s a bit more expensive than home cooked meals he likes to support local businesses during these hard times and encourages people to buy and shop locally during this holiday season.

City Council Member Julie Pignataro explained how negotiations with NoCo Nosh (a restaurant delivery service featuring online food ordering to Northern Colorado) have led to a program working with the city and restaurant delivery fees.

The City of Fort Collins website explains this process stating,

“As part of the program the city will pay the restaurant portion of the delivery fees eliminating the fees that restaurants typically pay for NoCo Nosh to take, process, and fulfill a takeout or delivery order on their platform from now until December 30, 2020. During this period, the City will also be covering the processing fee and the first $0.50 of the delivery fee charged to Fort Collins residents placing orders on the NoCo Nosh platform.”

The funding for this program comes from more of the CVRF. This reduced the costs typically incurred by a restaurant for using a 3rd Party Company to deliver their food. These costs can be up to 35% for restaurants which comes off the food cost and is not paid by the customer. Starting on December 31st, restaurants will continue to have discounted delivery costs. The city has negotiated a reduced delivery cost of, “15% and takeout cost of 12.5% for restaurants that use NoCo Nosh services. This will be in effect until December 31, 2021 or until all governing public health agencies have lifted indoor dining restrictions.”

According to the National Restaurant Association, 100,000 restaurants have closed within the first six months of the pandemic. Almost 1 in 6 restaurants are either closed long term or permanently and with three million people out of work, the industry is set to lose nearly 240 billion in sales this year. In their survey 40% of restaurant owners and operators don’t think they will be in business within the next six months.

In addition to CVRF and outdoor dining permits, the city has granted leniency with sign code to allow for temporary signs to be installed in public right-of-way. This helped businesses direct customers to curbside pick-up locations and reminded them businesses are still open. The city also provided a retail sales tax deferral program that covered the initial shut-down. Enabling businesses to defer payment of the sales tax they collected and owed to the city for a couple of months.

Pignataro says that the relationship between the city itself and businesses have continued to be strengthened during the pandemic as they work towards the common goal of keeping the local economy strong.

“We will continue to help in whatever ways that we can and are always looking for new suggestions to help out our businesses as no one knows their business better than themselves, and we love hearing from them.”

With constant changes and updates regarding COVID-19 within both Colorado and Fort Collins, visit the Larimer County website or the City of Fort Collins website for more information.

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