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Denver unveils program to help restaurants, bars navigate COVID-19

Proposals could include expansion into designated outdoor areas such as adjacent parking lots, streets and sidewalks.

DENVER — As Denver restaurants and bars navigate how to safely reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the city has unveiled a program to help expand options for those businesses, including operating in outdoor areas nearby. 

The intent of the program is to allow for greater physical distancing and safety for customers when the state’s public health order allows for restaurants and bars to resume sit-down service.

While final rules and regulations are still in development, Denver city officials said proposals could include expansion into designated outdoor areas, such as adjacent parking lots, streets and sidewalks. Boulder is looking at a similar plan.

Although the state has not set a reopening date for restaurants and bars, the city is opening the application process Monday to proactively manage the review of expansion requests.  

“Business owners need time to prepare for re-opening, and we want to set them up for success as soon as dine-in becomes permissible again,” Mayor Michael Hancock said. “We also want to ensure it’s safe for employees and customers to return to these businesses when that time comes.” 

The co-owner of Bellwether, a bar, coffee shop and clothing store on East Colfax, applied for zoning variances as soon as the application came out on Monday. The place has been closed since the mandate from the state in March. 

Justin Anthony said he would like to be able to put a few tables and chairs on the sidewalk in front of the business, and use the parking lot in the back for a larger drinking and hang out spot. 

“It was so simple," said Anthony, who also owns Matchbox and American Bonded in Denver. "And in addition to being simple, I already know someone listened on the other end because within several hours I got a response back from the city saying we’ve received this we’re processing it and someone will be in touch within a few days." 

He said he hopes the rest of the process is simple as well. 

“Hopefully this is as streamlined as they’re purporting it to be because if it is, I think it could provide some much-needed relief to a lot of restaurants and give us an additional chance to earn some money," said Anthony.

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In a news conference Monday morning, Gov. Polis also addressed the reopening of restaurants and said the only way that can happen is with an increase in outdoor dining.

Polis said the state will release preliminary guidelines for restaurants in the next few days, and finalize the guidelines by the end of the week. A final decision on reopening restaurants won't happen until May 25. 

"I encourage every municipality to have that discussion," Polis said. "I hope every city is thoughtfully doing this. It's really important they open their sidewalks, parking lots and/or streets because restaurants can't stay in business at a quarter- or half-capacity."

As a way to gauge interest in Denver's expansion program, the city created this website where eligible businesses can submit a proposal for the city to review. Every proposal will include plans and accommodations for safety, mobility and local and emergency access.  

Eligible businesses include: restaurants, bars, cafes, coffee shops, taverns, brew pubs, breweries, microbreweries, distillery pubs, wineries, tasting rooms and other similar places of public accommodation offering food or alcohol beverages for on-premises consumption, the city said. 

In partnership with the Colorado Restaurant Association and EatDenver, a virtual information session on the program will be held Tuesday, May 19 at 1 p.m. Members of Denver’s restaurant and bar community can register to attend the information session at this link.  

Once approved, the program will be available to eligible businesses for the duration of the outdoor summer dining season through Sept. 7, 2020. After that, the city may evaluate a potential extension of the program. 

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