The city of Durango is considering what resources it has available to support local restaurants facing increased financial instability as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting public health orders.
In November, La Plata County experienced a spike in COVID-19 cases, placing it in the state’s Level Red category, a set of strict public health restrictions that include halting indoor dining. Facing restrictions on in-person dining and the slow winter season, some restaurants are feeling the economic pain.
City Council is trying to offer business owners some relief.
“It’s our town. We need to help our community, for sure, in the best way possible,” said Mayor Dean Brookie.
An estimated 65% of restaurants could close within the next six months under current conditions and if no aid is received.
But to loosen pandemic restrictions – like reopening for indoor dining – La Plata County must reduce its cases and hospitalizations for two weeks, according to state criteria.
But cases in La Plata County continue to rise rapidly. Intensive care units were 98.8% full, and inpatient beds were 63.9% full, Brookie said, citing San Juan Basin Public Health data.
Mercy Regional Medical Center was no longer accepting regional patients, he said.
“(Coronavirus transmission) is the reason that we went into stage red, which required our restaurants to curtail indoor dining,” Brookie said.
In response to the Level Red designation, some businesses, like CJ’s Diner and Wild Horse Saloon, have decided go against public health orders and offer indoor service. The move risks enforcement action by the city, which strengthened its enforcement capabilities through a new ordinance Nov. 23.
During a City Council workshop Tuesday, city councilors and staff members tried to find new ways to support businesses.
The city’s business relief program, funded by federal COVID-19 relief money, has already proved to be popular. Since it launched Nov. 24, more than 25 businesses have applied for grants of up to $15,000 to cover pandemic-related expenses, city staff members said.
The city would be able to award 26 grants at the maximum amount before running through the money, said City Manager José Madrigal. The city is accepting applications until Dec. 9.
Madrigal proposed helping businesses with costs related to third-party food delivery companies, like Grubhub or Doordash. Those companies charge as much as 30% commission on orders. The city plans to use at least $15,000 to partially reimburse commission costs.
Restaurant owners have asked for the city to forgive licensing fees, said Councilor Chris Bettin. Councilor Melissa Youssef supported the idea and suggested deferring utility or tax payments.
The councilors said restaurants have requested the city facilitate a meeting with SJBPH to find a way to balance public health and economic needs. Brookie said he would help arrange the meeting.
“Some of the businesses don’t feel they have a voice,” Youssef said. “They just want to be able to be heard.”