By Jeff Todd

DENVER (CBS4) – As leaders in Colorado begin to release plans on how some businesses will begin to reopen in the coming weeks, there’s concern that the state’s restaurant industry is going to be left behind. On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis said some businesses could start working their way back to normal in early May, but restaurants would be a few weeks behind retail shops and salons.

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“It’s going to be really, really tough on this industry to survive when the restaurant industry is all about being social and gatherings,” said Sonia Riggs, the president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Opening at a limited capacity is going to be really, really tough. Sadly, many restaurants won’t be able to make it with reduced capacity. We’re hearing the numbers just don’t make sense.”

The CRA says it has been talking with state and local governments on what could be done to safely reopen restaurants. A recent survey by the association showed the numbers are not good. Since the pandemic hit Colorado, 53 percent of respondents said they haven’t reopened.

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It’s estimated that 173,000 people are furloughed or laid-off from restaurant jobs. Normally the restaurant industry makes up about 10 percent of the state’s workforce.

“We’re being told by restaurateurs in a survey we recently conducted, if it’s not until mid-May, 11 percent will close permanently in Colorado. If they’re not able to open by the end of May, which the governor said was a possibility, upwards of 20 percent of restaurants might close permanently in the state. How do you recover from that? They’re so vital to our economy and our workforce,” Riggs said.

Few restaurants have been able to capitalize on government assistance so far. Only 15 percent said they could take advantage of the Paycheck Protection Plan from the federal government.

“75 percent of restaurants in Colorado are independently owned and operated. It’s going to be tough on them just to get through this. They are scared and we are hearing it all day long,” Riggs said.

Ideas around social distancing are hard, Riggs says, because no two restaurants are alike. Discussions are being had over every aspect of restaurants from how to safely space customers to what to do about menus.

“I think it’s not going to be the same industry that it was a few months ago, things are going to look very differently,” Riggs said.

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The CRA says an industry-specific relief package is needed to keep restaurants alive, but many owners needed that money a few weeks ago.

“I am concerned for their viability unless things can get opened up fully in the next month or so,” Riggs said. “I think we’re going to see a very different industry and we’re going to see a lot fewer of our favorite local bars and restaurants than we had in January.”

Jeff Todd