Don’t Die to Dine In

Golden operator Brandon Bortles on why he's decided not to reopen his dining rooms—yet.

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Restaurant dining room with booths set with place settings, plants, art on walls, and room divider.
Abejas' dining room is staying closed. / Courtesy Brandon Bortles

At a time when it seems no one can agree with anyone about anything (politics, science, pineapple on pizza), you’d think the hospitality industry would be a unified front. With operators exhausted after a frankly traumatic year, plenty of them see increased capacity as their only lifeline. So despite having little to no notice, many are gamely going along with constant regulatory changes and reopening their dining rooms to limited capacity as quickly as they can, costs (financial, mental, physical) be damned. Brandon Bortles, co-owner of Golden’s five-year-old Abejas and 11-month-old Nosu Ramen, decided that wasn’t the right decision for his dining rooms.

DiningOut: You’ve been vocal on social media about not wanting to reopen your dining rooms at limited capacity. Why?

Brandon Bortles: Part of me does think that our government totally mishandled [the pandemic] and opening up at 25 percent doesn’t help anyone. In your best year, January is a pretty awful month regardless, and then we’re supposed to be doing it at 25 percent capacity?

We opened Nosu literally two weeks before this happened [in March 2020], hired, trained, let go, and then hired back. And that was great—well, not great, but it kept us afloat. But coming into cold weather and seeing the whole country have spikes [in COVID cases]….as much as I want people to dine out, I don’t want them to die to do it.

All the political wishy-washiness is taxing on staff. We lose people all along the way. I had to lose people at Christmas who didn’t have unemployment, didn’t have paychecks. That’s awful. Polis closed us over the holidays, and then bent the rules to get us open after the holidays. I get it—holidays are a spreader event—but we gave back all those gains we made over the holidays. We weren’t at our own measures to reopen in [Jefferson County]. It’s pandering, to me. It’s a lack of political will.

Part of the problem with the 25 percent is that it’s an abdication of the responsibly of our government. Government needs to find the political courage to close businesses and find the money to keep them closed.

DO: What do you think about the idea that restaurants aren’t a significant source of COVID spread?

BB: I believe that, but it’s a slippery slope because restaurants and bars are closely related. I took a chef out to a bar around Christmas, and it was like, “Holy crap.” After two drinks all social distancing goes out the window. I feel like that’s a tiny bit shortsighted, and it’s not taking into account peripheral businesses.

What later guilt would you feel if one of your servers got COVID, gave it to someone else, and that person died? That wouldn’t haunt you?

DO: Thoughts about the 5 Star Certification Program?

BB: The 5 Star thing should have been there from the beginning. It’s another failure of government. There’s so many people kind of bending and breaking the rules, it’s infuriating if you’re trying to do things correctly and believe in community health. It’s nine months later we’re having apparatuses to keep people compliant. I’ve had spats in our community about people not doing it right.

DO: When will you reopen?

BB: A lot of it, honestly, is dependent on PPP because at some point I’m going to be forced to reopen. Our landlord has given us a couple months of rent forgiveness, so I’m going to get out of January and see what happens.

DO: Is it possible to make a decision like this and have it be apolitical?

BB: No. I hate the argument that everyone should be open, and those who are sick should just stay home. It doesn’t work that way. If you stay open and you see your 70-year-old mom at home, then she dies. It lacks empathy. It states your needs are greater than the entire community’s, and I think it’s the government’s job to see [businesses] through this. What later guilt would you feel if one of your servers got COVID, gave it to someone else, and that person died? That wouldn’t haunt you? It would haunt me. 

Like everyone, we’ve had blowups on Facebook and Next Door. This liquor store [in town] makes fun of people who wear masks, but they got blown up too. 

The abuse that you’re putting your staff through…there was someone at a hotel that was reopening and staff was outside working. Someone outside said, “Do you have to wear a mask to come in?” The employee said yes and the guy did a farmer’s blow on him, basically snotted all over him. It frayed my nerves and it’s part of the reason I closed. I cannot take another non-masker. [ED: Bortles also referenced an incident at Golden Moon Speakeasy we wrote about here.]

We’re in this business because we’re passionate about it and I’ve worked hard for it. I’m terrified, and it’s hard on my staff. Let’s just sit out January.

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