Travelers hungry for a meal while waiting for a flight at Denver International Airport can sit down at a bar or table inside a restaurant — something Coloradans can’t do almost anywhere else right now.
Since March, state and local health orders issued in response to the coronavirus pandemic have exempted airport food outlets from a blanket dine-in prohibition at restaurants and bars. Such establishments can offer only take-out or delivery service in most of the state, including within Denver city limits. (Some counties have received variances to allow limited in-person dining.)
But if airport restaurants have freedom most food establishments lack, that doesn’t mean DIA officials want the privately-owned concessionaires to operate normally. The airport has closed food-court seating areas shared by fast-food joints, and it’s urging restaurants and bars with their own dining areas to rearrange or remove tables and chairs to keep patrons farther apart.
Still, as passenger traffic continued a slow rebound from a historic 94% dropoff this spring, multiple readers contacted The Denver Post this week after seeing tables and bar seats occupied in Denver’s airport. And it was clear not all restaurants were heeding the airport’s guidance.
“I am not advocating that these restaurants be closed,” wrote David Spriggs, who lives in Denver and was not aware of the state’s exemption for airport restaurants. “I am just pointing out the hypocrisy. Are people in the airport at less risk than people outside of the airport? Obviously, that is not the case.”
Spriggs provided photos he shot Monday on his return from a business trip. They showed brisk dine-in business on Concourse B at Que Bueno! Mexican Grill and Smashburger. Some patrons at the restaurants’ bars, in particular, were seated within a few feet of one another.
Another reader who contacted The Post on Wednesday reported that on Concourse C, Timberline Steakhouse had a busy bar section that morning.
Several other dine-in restaurants were closed at the time — reflecting some airport outlets’ decision to shutter or offer only take-out food and drink during the pandemic.
The Colorado Department of Public Health Environment’s current “safer at home” public health order designates airports among critical government functions and explicitly exempts airport concessionaires from any closure orders. But it urges any allowed businesses to operate with social-distancing measures and cleaning protocols
DIA in recent weeks has required that all travelers and workers wear masks while inside the airport, including security-screening lines, and it’s taken other measures that include installing 100 hand-sanitizer dispensers and making disinfectant wipes available in gate areas. Spriggs said he noticed that nearly everyone he saw in the airport was wearing a mask, an improvement from reports of spotty compliance a few weeks ago.
But the dine-in question is one that hasn’t been answered uniformly.
“That’s something that we need to figure out,” said Alex Renteria, an airport spokesperson. “As you know, we are exempt from the mayor’s and governor’s orders. However, we are reconfiguring our restaurants’ layouts to maintain social distancing.”
She asked for Spriggs’ photos and said the airport would urge the restaurants pictured at least to reconfigure their dining setups to increase spacing between diners.
Amid the drastic falloff in passenger traffic, DIA has aided concessionaires by suspending their required annual minimum payments to the airport and reducing their rent through the end of the year.
Last week, according to DIA figures, traffic through the security-screening checkpoints was still down about 89% compared to the same time frame last year. The airport expected the Memorial Day holiday weekend’s screening numbers to reflect an 85% decrease compared to 2019.
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