Colorado Works to Create Outdoor Dining Options Suitable for Winter

LOVELAND, Colo. — The patio in front of Origins Wine Bar and Wood Fired Pizza faces a busy two-lane highway just off the downtown area. That road continues to the college town of Fort Collins to the north and down to Denver about 40 miles to the south, making it a popular path for commuters in this growing northern Colorado community.

Many of the restaurants nearby were able to expand their outdoor seating this summer into streets and alleyways to accommodate customers and keep staff employed without exceeding the state’s 50% capacity limits for indoor dining during the pandemic. But expanding the front patio was never really an option for the pizzeria given its location. Instead, Origins partnered with neighboring breakfast spot Doug’s Day Diner to create additional seating in a previously unused courtyard behind their shared building — bringing their total outdoor seating space in front and back to 13 tables or roughly 44 spots.

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Owner Jeff Noffsinger says it took some effort to get approvals to set up the courtyard, but the resulting business was key to “making things work” financially over the last few months. Now, with colder temperatures settling in, he isn’t sure how many people will even consider outdoor dining, especially when his business is built around the cold dinner hour that starts just after the sun has set.

“I would say the threshold is 50 degrees with outdoor heaters. Below that, most people won’t come and eat,” he says. “And we created this place originally as an experience. We created it as a place to spend time with friends and family in the evening with food and wine. Sitting outside when it is 20 degrees out isn’t an experience.”

Owners across the state like Noffsinger are considering what the impending loss of outdoor tables to weather will mean to their bottom line versus the return they may get from investing in winterizing those spaces with tarps, heaters and barriers to try to extend the season. It’s a difficult decision with plenty of uncertainty around staffing, public health and space constraints.

To that end, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment recently released specific guidelines that clarify restrictions around temporary structures or pop-up structures. The construction of these spaces — such as whether they have ceilings, how large they are, the available ventilation — will help determine if they are considered an indoor or outdoor setting for capacity requirements. The state will also offer one-time $375 stimulus payments to 435,000 qualifying individuals experiencing economic hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in Colorado this December.

Outside of policy and guidance, one of the most high profile actions by the state so far has been the creation of an “outdoor dining charrette” by Gov. Jared Polis and the Colorado Restaurant Association. Billed as an intense planning session with key stakeholders, the event created small teams of building officials, safety officers, restaurant owners and others to workshop ideas about what outdoor dining in the state could look like this winter. Each subgroup was tasked with identifying problems such as cost and safety related to a specific outdoor space such as rooftops or geographies like mountain towns.

An early example of the innovation the event is supposed to foster can be found among the mountain towns that rely on tourist money and were hit early and hard by the economic effects of the coronavirus. The Town of Mountain Village, near Telluride, is placing refurbished ski hill gondolas in its plaza, each offering seating for about six people to dine safely according to the current guidelines from the state. These heated, durable enclosures match the community’s ski culture and are built to withstand tough weather conditions and high foot traffic that may strain other temporary structures.

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And while gondolas may not work as seamlessly in Colorado’s urban areas, there is plenty of reason to believe outdoor seating innovation will occur in those spaces as well. The City and County of Denver announced in September it was extending the temporary allowance for restaurants and bars to expand outdoors through October 2021 — a full year longer than was originally planned. To date, 333 restaurants and bars have been approved to expand their serving capacity outdoors in the city and more than $1.6 million in street occupancy fees have been waived. While it is unclear how many will continue service into the colder months, the city says it is trying to keep the application process simple and has set aside CARES money in the form of grants to help with winterization.

The Colorado Restaurant Association shared plans from the charrette session this week. Some of the proposed designs are reminiscent of small outdoor food stalls while others explain how full streets could be closed and re-built into cohesive districts with walls for wind and heated floors. The association has also launched a grant program to help raise and distribute funds toward design, construction, applicable fees and supplies needed to create the spaces recommended in the workshop.

Sonia Riggs, the president and CEO of the association, said via email that restaurants have been telling her organization for months that their two greatest needs for survival are cash and capacity.

“This program gives them both. And while it’s not a silver bullet, we’re hopeful that it will make a big difference to some,” she said. “We will continue to advocate for cash and capacity at all levels of government.”

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