Restaurants and waiters face new reality and uncertain future in wake of coronavirus outbreak

Restaurant owner: Surviving is winning
Posted at 6:45 PM, Mar 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-17 22:27:07-04

DENVER -- Unemployment claims have spiked in Colorado after Gov. Jared Polis ordered all dine-in services at restaurants and bars to be suspended for 30 days, along with the closure of movie theaters, gyms and casinos on Monday, causing the state website to crash due to high volume. The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment said 6,800 claims were filed as of 10 a.m. Tuesday.

It’s not hard to see where those claims are coming from. On one of the biggest drinking holidays of the year, Downtown Denver was empty on St. Patrick’s Day.

The restaurant industry has perhaps been hit hardest by the shutdown caused by the novel coronavirus, and workers felt the gut punch from the closures right away.

At eight months pregnant, Cara Lauritsen, a mother of two, was sent home from her wait staff job at Billy's Inn in northwest Denver. Like thousands of Coloradans, Lauritsen suddenly finds herself uncertain of the future. Her employer has offered to keep her on the staff for one day a week.

“I know a lot of people that their only source of income is working in the service industry," she said. “It’s tough.”

"The service industry itself is debilitated right now," said Sterling Robinson, owner of Billy’s Inn, Earnest Food Hall, North County and Officer’s Club restaurants in Denver.

“What we have pledged as a group -- and I'm blessed that I get to work with some amazing people -- I'm going to extend a lifeline to our employees to the best of our ability,” Robinson said. “We understand this is a temporary situation, but we realize that we have to preserve the business at this point."

His restaurants and so many others are now pivoting, working to embrace the new reality with curbside pick-up and delivery options.

"This is obviously a fast and furious pace that we're proceeding with, but we realize that this is a service our community still needs. People need to eat," Robinson said.

He’s also frustrated.

“To be quite frank, this is going to bankrupt more people than will likely catch the virus,” Robinson said.

But, he also expressed and appreciation and understanding of the shutdown.

"The answer is, ‘Yes.’ As painful as it may be, this is what our country needed to do. And surviving is like winning at this point," he said.

As for Lauritsen, it's also about survival. She said she’s fortunate to qualify for Medicaid, her husband is still working and she believes her job will be here after things settle down.

"Our landlord hasn't been hassling us at all about what's going to happen,” she said. “I love the company and the people that I work with and for. They're super awesome with my schedule,” Lauritsen said. “I feel really lucky because some places are not like that."