indoor dining

Pictured above: a dish at La Cocina de Luz. Lucas Price, the owner of the popular Mexican restaurant on Telluride’s main street, is making plans to protect his staff and visitors this winter. (Courtesy photo) 

Aspen leaves are still aglow, and warm days have lingered. But don’t be fooled. The changing light is a harbinger of winter — a matter of particular urgency for local restaurateurs, who would like to keep their indoor spaces safe for visitors and employees. 

That fact hit home recently for the restaurant Cosmopolitan, which was notified that four of its guests had tested postive for Covid-19. 

“The diners called the county, and (public health director) Grace Franklin and a contact tracer contacted us,” said Chad Scothorn, the restaurant’s owner. “We were able to figure out exactly where those diners sat in the restaurant, and we immediately quarantined all the people who waited on them. That was the easy part.”

“We were extremely relieved that all our employees tested negative,” Scothorn added. All have since returned to work. 

Which is a good thing, because Cosmo doesn’t take an off-season break. “We never close in full during off-season,” Scothorn said. But if that fact hasn’t changed, plenty else has: the restaurant’s safety protocols are being extensively revisited. Some changes have already been implemented, and many more extensive ones — based on reports specifically tailored to Cosmo’s layout, and other local restaurants, by an engineer who has a second home in Mountain Village and has done a lot of research into maximizing air safety indoors — will be soon. 

“We deep clean every day now,” Scothorn said. “Everybody comes in 30 minutes early.” 

A lot of desanitizing takes more time than you might imagine. For example, “People don’t realize that most sanitizing solutions supplied to us by the restaurant industry, which are peroxide based or rely on QUATS” — a euphemism for quaternary ammonium compounds — “have to sit there and dry in order for them to work,” he explained. “Once the surface dries, it doesn’t look good. But it’s been sanitized.”

Scothorn had insisted upon eye-protection for staffers earlier in the pandemic, “but we kind of drifted away from that,” he said. “Now I’m asking, why did that happen?” 

Eye protection has returned.

“Even changes as simple as pointing a fan up at the ceiling can make a big difference in safety,” Scothorn said. “The local restaurant association recently sent over a video, and our staff has watched it. We’ve been having a lot of lengthy meetings; I’m letting our employees be part of this,” because the bottom line is, “We want the restaurant to stay open. We all want to keep our jobs. We’ve become Covid communists.” 

CHANGES AT LA COCINA

Lucas Price, the owner of La Cocina de Luz, has been thinking extensively about all the changes he intends to make in advance of winter. “Our plan is to limit seating,” he said, and “to have some pretty serious air purifiers” that employ a technique involving ionized hydrogen peroxide to destroy bacteria, viruses and odors. (The purifiers have already been purchased and installed.)

“I’ve done a lot of reading, and I feel strongly that these ionization units make you healthier just by being in their presence,” Price said. In addition, “We’ve got the doors open, and we’ve got the hood system cranking, which draws air from the front of the restaurant to the back. The big thing we’re doing is putting in a lean-to greenhouse to seat about 24-30. I don’t want to put out too much of a spoiler alert, but it’s going to be really nice out there, with lights and the garden and a fountain.” 

Price plans to keep the garden growing year-round. 

“We’ve also talked about quicker turnover times for diners,” he said, “with two cooks on at a time. It’s all about diminishing viral load. We’ve all had to become experts on this thing. The town has been helping the state and county to minimize spread, not lose our businesses” and, of course, raise money for the town and county through taxes. 

But let’s not forget the diners themselves.

“At the same time, people are coming up here to ski this winter. They need to eat, and a lot of them don’t cook,” Price observed. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has no plans to change his enduringly popular menu, with staple dishes beloved by visitors and locals alike for years. 

“We’ve recreated our little restaurant association group,” Price said. “Years ago, we used to have a local chapter. One of the biggest issues is to make sure we speak with a single voice, and make sure we all help each other out. We’re a town, a community, and it’s important to be unified.”

“One of the things that’s impressed me about Telluride,” said the engineer who has been doing much research on indoor ventilation, and is assisting La Cocina, Cosmopolitan and the Village Table in Mountain Village with individualized reports on keeping their interior spaces safe this winter, “is the tremendous sense of community here. Even though it’s a resort area, people have a very strong sense of pride about taking care of each other. Every situation is significantly different and unique” when it comes to protecting indoor spaces. “There is no 100 percent certain way to control the coronavirus indoors. But based on all the research I’ve done, I’ve told these restaurateurs they can make a tremendous difference” when it comes to limiting risk. “I have a knack for being able to understand systems and coming up with solutions that won’t cost them a lot to implement.” This person — who declined to be identified for this story — is offering his assistance at no charge, because he wants to help.

“The question is, what kind of lead time is there, and how long will implementing these changes take?” he pointed out. “With the restaurants, it’s tricky. They don’t have a lot to spend, and they don’t have a lot of time.”