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Restaurants struggle with financial impact from omicron variant

DENVER — After two years of moving, adapting, fighting, scraping and planning, Colorado restaurants have been hit by another crisis. Restaurants are already short of staff and are now facing the COVID-19 omicron variant.

The variant is now the dominant strain of COVID-19 in Colorado, going from less than 1% of new infections to now more than 92% in just two weeks. The strain is much more contagious than other strains, coinciding with the largest single-day rise in the state since the start of the pandemic.

“I think this new variation makes it even more challenging because restaurateurs are already having a hard time staffing their restaurants,” said Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Restaurants have had a hard time over the past two years, and every time it feels like things are starting to get better, we’re being hit by new curveball. So it’s a really tough time right now.”

According to the Colorado Restaurant Association, 85% of their restaurant members have already struggled with staffing issues. That was before the new variant hit Colorado. Numerous restaurants in Colorado are now forced to close due to the outbreak.

“During our Christmas closure, more and more people started coming in and we had to make a decision on Monday to close this week,” said Alex Seidel, executive chef and owner of Mercantile Dining and Provision.

Seidel says the restaurant had not tested positive for COVID-19 until last week. Now he has six employees who have called in sick.

“All we’ve been able to do so far to protect ourselves is close,” he said.

The state government is reluctant to call for a new lockdown or new capacity limits in restaurants, even as cases continue to mount. Industry leaders say this is because the state is now focusing solely on hospital capacity and ICU numbers. Fortunately, the omicron variant is more transmissible but less deadly and has sent a smaller percentage of those infected to the hospital.

The CDC has also relaxed its quarantine guidelines amid the spike in cases. The health department says employees can now quarantine for just five days instead of 10. For some in the restaurant industry, this is a win.

“I think that will help with the staffing problem and get people back to work faster than we initially thought,” Riggs said. “Especially after people have been vaccinated, which is what a lot of people in this industry have.”

But others, like Seidel, are more concerned, saying five days may not be enough to make a full recovery.

“Is it helpful for our team’s mental psyche if we trained them for 10 days?” asked Seidel. “It’s also very difficult to be in a position like me where I feel the responsibility of several hundred people.”

With 2022 approaching, restaurant owners agree that the start of 2022 looks a lot like 2021.

“It feels more like virgin territory,” Fletter said.

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