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Kamala Harris spends afternoon at Denver's Maria Empanada for roundtable discussion

Owners found out Monday that the Vice President would be visiting their restaurant to talk about the latest federal COVID-19 relief package.

DENVER — Vice President Kamala Harris met with Colorado small business owners for a roundtable discussion about the latest federal COVID-9 relief package at Maria Empanada’s flagship location on South Broadway Tuesday.

It was a last-minute visit, according to the restaurant’s founder, Chef Lorena Cantarovici.

“We found out yesterday,” Cantarovici told 9NEWS. “It left me without words, and that’s very hard to [do].”

Cantarovici took her time in front of the Vice President to share her experience as a restaurant owner during the pandemic.

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“Our experience was like any other type of restaurant. I’m here [representing] Maria Empanada, but I’m also representing every single small restaurant, any bar, anyone in this industry that is suffering at this time,” Cantarovici said.

She talked about how quickly the pandemic affected her business, losing most of her revenue almost a year ago.

“One year ago tomorrow is going to be the time when I was sitting in one of these chairs talking to each of our employees and letting them go. It was a very sad story. A very sad memory.”

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The story of Maria Empanada is unfortunately not unique.

“We estimate about 93,000 employees have been laid off or furloughed over the last year,” The Colorado Restaurant Association’s President Sonia Riggs told 9NEWS. “Restaurants are saying, on average in 2020, they were down 40% [in revenue] year over year. Some were down far more than that. We’ve heard of restaurants who were down 90%.”

Riggs acknowledges that government assistance, like the relief plan Harris was in Colorado promoting, is helpful; however, the biggest change the restaurant industry needs has to do with capacity levels.

“Restaurants aren’t even going to be able to begin their road to recovery until we see their capacity back at 100%. The 6-foot social distancing needs to go away. Certainly restaurants want people to be safe. They want their staff and their guests to be safe. But, it’s going to take a while for restaurants to recover once we see restaurants back at 100%.”

Cantarovici agrees, although she stressed the importance of safety during a pandemic again.

“But restaurants, we don’t make it we don’t have a certain quantity of rotation of tables or people coming. You know the quantity of people that you need, the quantity of transactions that you need to make the model work,” Cantarovici said.

She shared all these points with Vice President Harris during Tuesday’s roundtable discussion.

“She was very interested in listening,” according to Cantarovici. “It’s [been] almost a year, and now, we’ve seen in this visit hope. It’s hope.”

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