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Service industry struggles with COVID cases among staff

Restaurants and other businesses are reducing hours or temporarily closing as COVID cases climb among staff members.

DENVER — After nearly two years of surviving pandemic challenges, the service industry now faces a new battle with the more contagious omicron variant.

With so many staffers out sick with the virus, businesses have had to shorten hours or even close temporarily.

“Most of my staff, I’d say 99%, is vaccinated and boosted, so I think that helped a lot as far as recovery, or severity of symptoms,” said Jeff Osaka, who runs several Sushi-Rama restaurants and other businesses throughout the Denver area. 

Even with high vaccination rates, several staff members have contracted COVID this month, including him.

“We had to close a couple restaurants [temporarily] because of so many people were getting the virus and not being able to staff up properly,” he said. “We played it safe so no one else would get infected.”

In some cases, Osaka said he could keep a restaurant open but had to reduce hours. He said his staff was already taking extra precautions like wearing gloves, regular hand washing, and wearing masks – even before Denver’s latest mandate. But the omicron variant still worked its way through.

Credit: KUSA
Osaka Ramen in Denver

“We’ve learned to manage and adjust,” he said.

It's the same story with Scott Boyd's Denver restaurant, The Rotary.

“We started getting calls. ‘I have COVID, my roommate has COVID, my entire family has COVID,’” he said.

“I think were closed, in all, probably three days we would have normally been open. Then we did a week of takeout only," he said.

Credit: KUSA
The Rotary (Denver location)

The staffing impact is only the latest challenge for restaurants during the pandemic. Business owners have also faced shutdowns, capacity limits, a labor shortage and supply chain snags.

And Boyd's team faced yet another blow in recent weeks. Two weeks into December, they opened a second location of The Rotary in Louisville.

“We spent six months getting that opened," he said. "Opened on 15th. And we burned down on the 30th.”

Credit: The Rotary
The Louisville location of The Rotary burned during the Marshall Fire.

While his Louisville home survived the Marshall Fire, his two-week-old business did not. 

RELATED: Louisville restaurant open 16 days destroyed by Marshall Fire

Boyd said they have good insurance and will not be defeated by the fire. But he’s ready for 2022 to cut his team a break.

“We’re due!” he said. “We’re planning on 2022 being the year for us.”

It's not just traditional restaurants.

BookBar, a popular book store and wine bar on Tennyson Street, reduced hours through January, cut back on hosting events this month, and limited the bar to takeout orders only.

The owner, Nicole Sullivan, said nearly half her staff of about 15 people ended up with COVID right after the holidays. She said everyone got sick pay, and the reduced hours allowed the store to only staff one shift per day.

Sullivan said everyone is now feeling better and back to work.

For businesses, omicron’s impact on their staff is just another pandemic pivot – after a long two years of pivoting.

“The positive side is, we’ve learned to work lean and save a few pennies there,” Osaka said.

“Every day is a challenge," he said. "You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

RELATED: Spikes in COVID cases close some Denver metro restaurants

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