Some local restaurants and other businesses reopened over the Memorial Day weekend. Although they still face an uncertain summer, many merchants were optimistic after receiving customers.

In Old Colorado City, where in normal times the streets would have been teeming with revelers attending Territory Days, only a handful of shoppers wandered along Colorado Avenue on Memorial Day.

Stores lured passersby with sales and sidewalk displays on Monday, and some shoppers wore masks as they entered or peered into doors and windows.

A few restaurants scrambled to open when they learned that limited indoor dining had been approved.

Around 10 p.m. May 23, El Paso County Public Health announced it had been notified late that evening that the county’s request to allow restaurants to open with limited seating was approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

The county submitted the request for a variance May 18.

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Many of the restaurants in Old Colorado City found the variance and new regulations too much to digest and did not reopen for indoor service during the holiday weekend. Instead, they continued to provide carry-out service, said Ashley Perry, executive director of local merchants association, Shop Old Colorado City.

Most restaurants that have been providing pickup or delivery have been doing a fraction of the business they had before they were ordered to close on March 16.

But other businesses, especially those that cater to outdoor activities, were doing as well as or better than last year.

‘MAD RUSH’ TO REOPEN

Restaurants reopened for table service under strict limitations: They may serve no more than 50 percent of the number of customers their licenses allow for, and they must arrange tables so that diners are socially distanced. 

Restaurants are not required to mandate that customers use masks, but employees who come into contact with diners must wear face coverings.

Eateries are required to take reservations, although “walk-in” reservations are acceptable. They are encouraged to get contact information for at least one person from each party.

Dat’s Italian was one of the few restaurants in Old Colorado City that was able to reopen May 24.

Owners Joanne and Dennis Trujillo were preparing the restaurant for reopening but, like many others, found out about the variance at 7 a.m. Sunday.

“We’ve been painting, cleaning carpets and fixing up, and we had five hours to finish the painting, make a sign, call staff and make sure they could come in,” Joanne Trujillo said. “It was a mad rush.”

The cancellation of Territory Days this year concerned the Trujillos, although they don’t usually do as much business during the annual Old West festival as they do on normal summer weekends.

This year, they did better than they expected, though sales didn’t reach the level of last year’s Territory Days.

“It was really encouraging,” Dennis Trujillo said. “We didn’t know what to expect with tourism this summer, but there were a lot of people from out of town — Texas, Oklahoma and Indiana in particular. I’m more excited about this summer than I was before.”

Under the new regulations, Dat’s Italian can seat only 20 diners indoors.

“That’s not going to be enough to sustain us after we’ve gone three months without making any profit,” Joanne Trujillo said.

So the Trujillos opened up their back patio, where they can seat another 20 customers. Although no one requested patio seating Memorial Day weekend, which was marred by rain and chilly temperatures, they hope that decision will pay off as summer rolls on.

Revenue this weekend was better than what they’d been taking in with curbside service, which amounted to 10-15 percent of normal sales on weekends, Joanne Trujillo said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, “we were at 15 percent better sales” than last year, she said. “We were on a banner year.”

The Trujillos are hoping the coming weekends will continue to improve.

“We’re close to 60 years old, and this is our retirement business,” she said. “We have to make it work.”

RETAIL PICKS UP

Memorial Day weekend also went better than expected at The Squash Blossom, which sells Native American jewelry, fine art and home accessories.

Business isn’t usually the best during Territory Days, but this year the store had planned an outdoor display and had expectations of doing better, Gallery Manager Kenny Idleman said.

Idleman was disappointed that Territory Days was canceled, but sales turned out to be close to what he had projected for the weekend.

“We had a sandwich board outside and signs in the window pushing our Memorial Day sale,” he said.

Foot traffic didn’t come close to the 30 or so customers who enter the store on a normal summer weekend day, but the store made several large sales.

The weekend before Memorial Day “was actually the best weekend we’ve had in a long time as far as sales,” Idleman said, “but it was still about five to 10 people coming through throughout the day. Luckily, they were wanting to spend money.”

The Squash Blossom has a staff of four and has retained employees throughout the COVID-19 crisis.

The store created 6-foot social distancing borders and got a new point-of-sale system that is touchless for customers. All surfaces are cleaned and sanitized after every shopper.

Employees are required to wear masks and customers are encouraged to, but not turned away if they don’t.

“We haven’t run into situations where there’s people in the store with masks and people without,” he said. “That would complicate things a little bit.”

Thus far, employees have been able to manage the traffic and cleaning routine, and Idleman intends to limit the number of people inside so they can continue to do so.

The Squash Blossom, like most businesses in Old Colorado City and throughout the region, depends on tourism to boost summer revenue.

With tourism uncertain, “our strategy is to appeal more to our loyal, longtime customers,” he said. “We’ve done customer appreciation events that are just for our local people, so I’m sure we would increase events like that.”

If gatherings, currently limited to 10 people, are allowed again, “we’ll start putting on art walks again,” he said. 

“We’ve also considered doing some sort of little outdoor gathering” in the parking lot behind the store, he said. 

The store likely will continue to promote online sales through its website as well.

“We don’t want to put a bunch of effort and money into advertising for anything if it’ll get shut down,” he said. “The whole coronavirus thing has made everything a lot more uncertain.”

SUMMER PASTIMES

With limited opportunities for restaurant dining and the reopening of camping, residents and tourists appear to be flocking to stores that help them to cook out and hit the road this summer.

Business has not slowed — and in fact picked up before Memorial Day weekend — at Colorado Springs Grill Store, salesperson Cody Neumann said.

Since the store sells premium meats as well as smokers, grills, pits, fuel and barbecue accessories, it was considered essential and was able to remain open.

Although sales dropped a bit when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, “we’re status quo or a little better,” Neumann said.

He thinks people sheltering at home are cooking outside even more than they do during a normal summer.

“I carry two brands of smokers, and I can’t keep them on the floor,” he said. 

The store has been making sure everyone follows the rules. Employees wear masks and “better than 50 percent” of customers are wearing them as well, Neumann said. 

“It’s rare that we have more than six people in here at a time,” which makes it fairly easy for employees to practice social distancing and cleanliness.

“The only thing that’s hurt us is we normally will cook and put out samples, which we’re not doing for obvious reasons right now,” he said. “We try to coach our customers to step up their barbecue game.”

The store won’t resume the cooking classes it normally offers in the summer until it’s clear what guidelines will be for gatherings.

Nonetheless, Neumann thinks overall sales will be better than they were last year.

The Memorial Day weekend was at least as good as last year at Camping World, which sells new and used RVs, parts and service, and accessories.

“We had a great weekend,” Sales Manager Klint Kane said. “It’s hard to say if it’s been better or worse because of the whole COVID-19 thing. We do think people will be traveling more in their RVs than in the past couple of years because of COVID-19. I mean, you’re not going to see as many people flying and doing cruises. So the next best thing is to stay inside of the United States and travel via road.”

Camping World, which is part of a 160-store corporation, hasn’t changed its marketing or advertising strategies this year.

But the local store, located in Fountain, reserves 9-10 a.m. each day for senior and at-risk customers and offers a virtual visit and curbside pickup program.

“It’s looking like it’s going to be a good summer, but who really knows?” Kane said.

The KOA located in Fountain also had a good Memorial Day weekend, Manager Scott Martin said.

Only a few of its 209 sites weren’t rented for the weekend.

“We had a lot of reservations this weekend, and a few people stopped in as they were traveling,” he said.

It’s usual for the majority, if not all, of campsites at Colorado campgrounds to be reserved on holiday weekends, and the KOA already has a lot of bookings for July 4, Martin said.

Although some reservations have been canceled because of COVID-19, “we think more people will be in their motor homes and campers and tents,” he said. “They know who has stayed there, and they can restrict their movements to what they’ve been comfortable with. We’re rolling pretty good with reservations right now.”

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