‘It was one of the top five worst days of my life’: Colorado restaurants hit hard by coronavirus

Restaurants and their workers deal with lay-offs and economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus

Brett Wenger prepares a take-out order at Rolling Smoke Barbecue in Centennial on Monday, shortly after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced a 30-day closure of all dine-in areas of bars and restaurants to combat coronavirus. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Brett Wenger prepares a take-out order at Rolling Smoke Barbecue in Centennial on Monday, shortly after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis announced a 30-day closure of all dine-in areas of bars and restaurants to combat coronavirus. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

As his employees showed up for work at Rolling Smoke Barbecue on Saturday, owner Terry Walsh called them into his office, one by one, more than a dozen in all, and told them that they no longer had jobs. 

“I said ‘here’s what’s going on… here’s the reality of the situation. You see what’s happening in Spain, you see what’s happening in France, it’s [restaurant closures] going to happen here,’” Walsh said. 

Walsh was right. Following in the footsteps of other states and the city of Denver, Gov. Jared Polis ordered the shut down of all restaurants and bars for dine-in service on Monday.

Walsh’s restaurant, cornered in a shopping center in Centennial next to its large, black-drum outdoor smokers, has been open for two years. He started the business in a food truck in 2014, before opening two locations, one in Centennial and one at The Stanley Marketplace in Aurora. The Stanley Marketplace location was the first to go. The space shut its doors to customers on Saturday, effectively laying off half of Walsh’s workforce of 25 between both locations. He said he will start operating the food truck at the Marketplace for curbside pickup soon. 

Later that day, Walsh started calling his Centennial employees into his office and switched to take-out only. Sales had dropped 40% in the previous week, he said, and will probably drop 60% from normal in the next week. He said he wanted his employees to be able to file unemployment before thousands of others clogged the system

“It was one of the top five worst days of my life,” Walsh said. “Really other than days people have died.”

 

Terry Walsh (right) owner of Rolling Smoke Barbecue speaks to a take-out customer at the Centennial location on Monday. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Terry Walsh (right) owner of Rolling Smoke Barbecue speaks to a take-out customer at the Centennial location on Monday. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

Some of his workers didn’t accept it at first, and thought he was overreacting, he said. They’ve since called and to tell Walsh he did the right thing, he said. He told them, “if I could change things, I would, but this is beyond anything we’ve ever seen.” 

Brett Wenger has worked full time alongside Walsh since the restaurant opened. Wenger, too, was called back into Walsh’s office on Saturday and asked to close the door.

Wenger was not laid off, but his hours were cut to one, 10-hour shift a week.

“It was rough for a lot of people, they immediately walked out, just couldn’t handle it,” Wenger said. 

Like many of the store’s other employees, he filed for unemployment, joining thousands of others who have now filed claims in an unprecedented surge, Colorado Public Radio reports

Wenger, 28, said he’s worried, waiting on unemployment and hoping Colorado will offer some sort of help to people who can’t pay their rent or their mortgages. He said he has enough money to cover rent for April and maybe May. He doesn’t have any children, and he said he has people he can stay with if he needs it, but he doesn’t want to lose his apartment. 

In Englewood on Monday night, a few tables of loyal patrons of 4 G’s on Broadway Mexican Restaurant said they wanted to come in for one last meal before the shutdown. Myrna Diaz owns the restaurant along with her husband and employs 13 workers between its two locations, the first of which was opened in 1973.

Everyone was watching the news together, she said, when the announcement came down from Gov. Polis. That’s when Diaz told most of her workers they would be laid off. She was crying, she said, and told her employees there’s nothing she could do. 

“I told them… everybody was devastated, everybody was worried [about] what they are going to do,” Diaz said. 

Rent for the restaurant space just went up, she said, and her husband spoke to their landlord who assured them they would find a solution. 

“Not as a business owner, but as a person, I think [the restaurant closures are] the right thing to do if they want to stop this,” Diaz said. 

 

Niccolle Trejo rings in the last customers' orders at 4 G's on Broadway Mexican Restaurant in Englewood on Monday before the state-mandated closure. (Photo by Forest Wilson)
Niccolle Trejo rings in the last customers’ orders at 4 G’s on Broadway Mexican Restaurant in Englewood on Monday before the state-mandated closure. (Photo by Forest Wilson)

Niccolle Trejo has worked as a server and bartender at 4 G’s for a year and a half. She’s not sure how her hours will be affected, she said, but they will probably be cut because only one or two people will be doing deliveries and take-out. 

“I’m so nervous because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Trejo said.

She also owns a business doing estate sales, she said, and it, too, will probably be affected by the pandemic.

“I’m assuming with all the people being scared to be in big groups, that they’re not going to want to be at someone’s home for an estate,” Trejo said. 

If it’s only 30 days, she’ll be OK, she said, but anything beyond that she will start going into debt. 

The Official Response: 

Colorado officials are currently drafting forms for the state to be declared a disaster area and receive congressionally-appropriated small business loans, Jill McGranahan with the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade says. 

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado alongside Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sherrod Brown of Ohio, announced a plan on Tuesday to send direct cash payments of up to $4,500 to Americans for financial help during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Gov. Polis said in a statement provided by the COEDIT that his top priority “is protecting the health and safety of Coloradans which also minimizes damage to our economy.” 

Resources: 

How to file for unemployment

Unemployment benefits are available to people who have lost their jobs or who have had their hours drastically cut because of coronavirus. 

Workers can file a claim through the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment if they’ve earned more than $2500 in a set period of time — about one year — at their job. The full list of qualifications and form to file a claim can be found on CDLE’s website here. Workers should have documents proving their wages and any other pay from the job they lost. 

If qualified, workers must request payments every two weeks to still receive benefits. 

How to find local food banks:

Food Bank of the Rockies serves the majority of counties in Colorado and has a handy food pantry finder on its website here

Care and Share food bank serves much of Southern Colorado and also has a pantry locator here.

If you’re in a similar situation and want to tell your story, we’re here. Email forest@coloradoindependent.com

1 COMMENT

  1. The closures of restaurants, theaters and gyms is unecessary and stupid. I hate Polis and every Dumbocrat trying to bring down Colorado. A knee-jerk reaction designed to make citizens dependent on government.

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