On November 24, owners and operators of 15 Larimer County restaurants and bars took a stand and publicly stated they would not abide by the Level Red restrictions that were set to take effect at 5 p.m. that day. It was part of a statement signed by approximately 60 businesses claiming the statistics used by the state of Colorado to move the county from Level Yellow to Level Red were misleading and that restaurants and other small businesses are not “a significant source of [COVID] transmission.” The letter read in part: “We, the undersigned business owners will remain open for business under the yellow guidelines to protect the public health and the economic livelihood of the community.”
A month later, here’s how that’s played out for two operators: Chad Miller, owner of Loveland’s McGraff’s American Grill and Jesse Sommers, co-owner of Berthoud Brewing Co., which has locations in Berthoud and Loveland. They’ve had vastly different experiences after their very public rejection of public health orders, a theme that’s sure to sound grindingly familiar to operators who are baffled and frustrated by constantly shifting rules, regulations, and enforcement.
Two final notes: We spoke to Miller and Sommers just before Larimer County was approved to participate in Colorado’s 5 Star Certification Program. All statistics and figures quoted here came from our interviewees and and have not been verified by DiningOut.
DO: What was the response from customers to your statement?
Chad Miller: Overwhelming and heartwarming and honestly brought us to tears. We had people calling us from as far away as the Springs, Commerce City, and Greeley, asking how are we doing it and how could they get on board. We had an overwhelming response from same-thinking, logical people who have a sense of self-responsibility.
We had the busiest week we’ve ever done in the history of the restaurant from Wednesday through Saturday, and that was with being closed on Thursday [Thanksgiving]. Friday and Saturday [November 27 and 28] were the two busiest days since opening in 1995. Typically, a waitress would walk with $300 on a relatively busy night—two walked with $900 each.
Jesse Sommers: The majority was positive. There were the exception of two or three one-star reviews from people who were simply saying, “Not complying.” One guy was kind enough to leave the details of his previous five-star review.
For the most part [customers have been] fairly consistent. We still actively encourage outdoor seating. We have heaters, we just make sure seating inside is an option.
I haven’t heard from a single elected official since the shutdown in March.Jesse Sommers, Berthoud Brewing Co.
DO: Did you receive any response from Larimer County or state of Colorado?
CM: Not yet. We had local liquor authority and police officers eating lunch there all week. I know that we’ve had several people in here from Larimer County eating while we were defying the order. If Larimer County thinks we’re doing the wrong thing, they wouldn’t be in here eating.
JS: I have not. Actually, I haven’t heard from a single elected official since the shutdown in March.
DO: Have you attempted to work directly with any county, municpal, state governmental agencies?
CM: No, my civil disobedience is about providing a livelihood for my employees in a righteous way. I want state and local officials to look me in the eye and tell me why my bartender who has a three year old isn’t an essential worker, but a clerk at Hobby Lobby is.
DO: How long did you keep the indoor dining room open at 50 percent capacity?
CM: We got to do this about a week before Polis sent out armed guards [to Grimm Brothers Brewing and Mo’ Betta Gumbo, which were other, vocal signatories]. We were third on the list—I was the guy standing in the middle at the press release handing out a petition. Someone called us and we shut down before they came here.
By Wednesday [December 1] only a handful [of restaurants that signed the letter] actually stayed open. Maybe these restaurants had prior violations or maybe they weren’t following protocols, but if there’s a restaurant that’s got a really bad kitchen that has rats, you shut that restaurant down. Don’t paint us all with the same brush. We’ve been here since 1995 and never failed a health check; we’re trying to do the right thing.
We’re not anti-maskers or anything like that. We have zero outbreaks [at McGraff’s]. We’re not saying I want every restaurant to be open; I want to be on the same playing ground as Wal-Mart.
JS: We’re still seating indoors.
DO: What capacity are you operating at now?
CM: Level red (ED: no indoor seating). It’s been OK. We went from 6,500 square feet to 450 square feet outside facing west and north, which is windy. I bought about $1500 worth of equipment to try and heat the outdoors, which is impossible.
JS: The fire code is 288; we’re seating about 40 inside. All of our tables are 10 to 12 feet apart. We already accounted for that.
DO: Do you provide paid sick leave or medical benefits to your staff?
CM: No, we’re way too small for that.
JS: We don’t have any built in benefits, no, but we have one employee who was sick in March. We can’t confirm it was COVID, so we told him to stay home for two weeks paid.
I don’t have a choice. I play their game or this becomes a bank or a church in the next month. I’ll do whatever it takes. We have done whatever it takes—we’ve gone above and beyond.Chad Miller, McGraff’s American Grill
DO: Do you think the state’s 5 Star Certification Program is sufficient? Will you participate in it if given the chance?
CM: Absolutely. I don’t have a choice. I play their game or this becomes a bank or a church in the next month. I’ll do whatever it takes. We have done whatever it takes—we’ve gone above and beyond.
JS: You know, at least it gives us a chance. I think we’ve had a pretty big miss collectively on how this is handled—obviously the big box stores and big corporations are continuing to profit….while small businesses have demonstrated a willingness to show they can control it pretty well as opposed to colleges and churches. In our county, restaurants and breweries are fifth or sixth on the list of places to get COVID, and 90 percent of that was in Ft. Collins at CSU.
I have an inspection scheduled [for the 5 Star Certification Program] on Monday, December 28.
DO: There are people who will cite studies that conclude that being in an enclosed space with people and an airborne virus does spread that virus; will say that the reason there’s no proof of transmission from restaurants is because we do next to no contact tracing; and who will point to 310,000 dead Americans. What is your response to that?
CM: Less than two percent of outbreaks are due to restaurants. New York just did their own contact tracing study that said only 1.4 percent of cases are linked to restaurants.
Obviously, a death is a death. It’s tragic. The average age of COVID death is 84.7. [There have been] only 21 to 30 deaths in Loveland. To destroy the livelihoods of thousands of people is…more people have died of suicide than of COVID. It seems to me that to save 20 lives but destroy thousands is unbalanced. The statistics I don’t think support it scientifically. The problem isn’t restaurants. They say staying at home is dirtier. Do you clean your bathroom once an hour? We do. Do you kick people out of your house if they have over a 102 degree fever? We do.
JS: Go to DIA and sit at the bar at Elway’s, which you can, and talk to friends from California, which you can. How is all dining completely unaffected at DIA? That’s the point of transmission: people getting together and we’re allowing them to do that from other hot spots.
I want to point to the tents. Display scientifically how sitting in a tent has better ventilation. What’s weird is nobody’s worried about four-sided tents. I want to know how legally that’s OK, but we’re not.
It’s just a death knell for small business. All I want to do is keep a roof over my head.Jesse Sommers, Berthoud Brewing Co.
DO: McGraff’s website says this is not a political stance. Do you think that’s really possible in the current climate?
CM: It’s hard to untie that. I say that’s its not political. Every day things change. I don’t want it to get political…..[but] if Colorado is a blue state how can it condone using 10 to 30 times more propane [to heat outdoor seating]. Some of my aggravation comes out in ways that aren’t politically correct. It’s hard to untie it from logic and politics.
Take personal responsibility and don’t go out. If you think you’re in danger, just stay home.
JS: I get a lot of people who assume I am an anti-masker or that i’m affiliated with the party who agrees with that. It’s just a death knell for small business. All I want to do is keep a roof over my head.
From my point of view it’s apolitical because it’s apolitical to me. It comes down to science and data. [We had] 12.8 percent positivity when we shut down and rate to shut down was 15 percent. I was looking at the numbers and saying, “This doesn’t make sense.”
As Americans, don’t we have the right to put ourselves in danger every day? We have a right to drive vehicles every day. We can go to shooting ranges every day. If we have the right to choose to go to church, shouldn’t you have the right to have a beer?
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