Can you eat at restaurants safely in Colorado? Gov. Polis’ mixed messaging.

This week, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis sent a strong message to Coloradans: “Colorado I love you,” he wrote on his social media accounts, “but you have to cancel your social plans the next few weeks.”

That message came days after Denver County declared a 10 p.m. curfew. A week earlier, restaurant capacities were cut in half to help curb the spread of COVID-19, which has reached its highest rate of transmission in Denver and Colorado since the pandemic began. Now local public health officials are urging the state to put in place more aggressive COVID-19 restrictions.

Unlike in March, Polis and the state’s epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy have clarified at the start of the 2020 holiday season that Coloradans can still patronize businesses and dine in at restaurants. Without businesses shut down, the message remains confusing whether it’s safe to go out.

“I think there are some things that are very clear, and then I think that there are some things that are up to individuals’ risk tolerance,” said Dr. Lisa Miller, a professor of epidemiology with the Colorado School of Public Health.

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As of Tuesday, Miller said that at a minimum, Coloradans should avoid “congregating with people outside your own household, indoors, with no mask.” But as far as dining indoors with people from your own household, versus eating outside or getting takeout, “I think that’s where your own risk tolerance comes in,” she explained.

During the first nine days of November, in-house dining was down 47 percent across Colorado restaurants, on average, according to data from the reservation platform OpenTable. Outbreaks at Colorado restaurants, bars and entertainment venues have nearly doubled since the end of August from 480 to 898. Retail and grocery stores, by comparison, had experienced 748 outbreaks by Nov. 8.

Independent restaurants argue that they are a much smaller part of the larger outbreak picture. As of this week, sit-down restaurants in Denver County are experiencing seven active outbreaks. An outbreak is defined as two or more cases diagnosed within a two-week period among staff.

“Thus far, there are no documented cases of transmission from staff to diners,” said Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. Dr. Miller notes that staff outbreaks are better tracked and documented than those among diners. But this is part of the issue with increased restrictions placed on restaurants, Riggs says.

“Restaurants are highly regulated and trained in keeping patrons safe,” she said, “and many are going above and beyond the COVID-19 sanitation recommendations to keep their staffs and guests healthy. …This is in stark contrast with a private party, where people might mingle, mask-less and not socially distanced, for several hours.”

Social gatherings are indeed harder to track. By Nov. 8, there were 410 outbreaks from such settings reported by the state.

“The problem is, private gatherings are harder to control, so officials are pulling the levers they can control to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which includes further restricting restaurant capacity limits and closing times,” Riggs said. “This could actually be detrimental, as it’s forcing people out of regulated spaces, like restaurants, into unregulated spaces, like parties.”

In the face of more restrictions, Miller says she is glad to see restaurants taking precautions even further, creating more single-family outdoor dining rooms, like greenhouses, as winter starts. But she also cautions diners to assess outdoor dining spaces individually when they go out.

“Even if it’s outdoors, if it’s got four walls, you’re really defeating the purpose of being outdoors,” she said of makeshift outdoor dining spaces that hold multiple groups.

The public, too, seems to be aware of this discrepancy. This week a meme surfaced on social media: “I’m confused — we can’t eat inside but we can eat inside as long as the inside is outside.”

When faced with diminishing capacities and sales, some local restaurants are preemptively closing to in-person dining or altogether even as a formal shutdown hasn’t come.

One of the flagship restaurants at Union Station, Mercantile Dining and Provision, has closed indefinitely. Owner Alex Seidel announced the temporary closure on Halloween, after two confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff members, and following the latest indoor seating reduction and imposed curfew.

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“As soon as we went to 25% (capacity), there was more fear. Now there’s the 10 p.m. curfew, so there just aren’t going to be people down(town),” Seidel said. “I have a feeling we are headed in the wrong direction, so we will see if and when it is time to reopen.”

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