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Patrons sit at tables outside of Vesper Lounge in Denver's Governor's Park neighborhood on Oct. 30, 2020. The restaurant is one of several on E. 7th Ave. that have expanded into the street to stay open during the pandemic. 

Restaurant owners criticized the state's decision to move their staff down in the vaccination queue as a "slap in the face" and dangerous, a year into a pandemic that's hammered their industry.

Late last week, Gov. Jared Polis announced that starting March 5, grocery and agricultural workers, older residents and some with pre-existing conditions would begin their eligibility to receive a COVID vaccine. But the announcement didn't include restaurant workers, who instead will have to wait until mid- to late March before they are moved into the pool.

That news was a surprise to restaurant owners and the Colorado Restaurant Association. In a press release at the time, the president of the organization, Sonia Riggs, said that she had been "assured multiple times from multiple people from the Governor's office, including the Governor," that restaurant workers would be vaccinated alongside grocery staff. Those assurances continued up until "hours before" Polis's announcement.

Katie Lazor, the executive director of local restaurant group EatDenver, echoed that disappointment.

"Oftentimes over the last year, it has been pointed out that in the grocery environment, guests wear masks the whole time and it is easier for them, and employees, to be socially distant," she said in an email. "Because of this, and because both grocery and restaurants are deemed essential during this pandemic, we find it inconsistent and disappointing that grocery workers would be prioritized ahead of restaurant workers, instead of in the same group."

The news didn't surprise some restaurant owners, who saw it as the latest hit in a year full of them. Elliot Strathmann, who with his wife owns the Denver Italian restaurant Spuntino, said he rolled his eyes when he saw the news.

"It's almost a parody of itself at this point," he said. "The number of revisions to the tier system that they're coming up with, (changes) on a weekly basis. For us, it hurt."

Kate Kaufman of Denver Central Market said that the past year has been spent blaming restaurants for contributing to spread. To say that and "then not allow us to get vaccinated in any sort of efficient manner doesn't many any sense to us at all."

She, like Spuntino, said the state has had months to figure out its distribution process, and the bump-down in priority felt like it happened "just because." Restaurants don't have a choice in opening up as much as they can, she said.

"We have to," Kaufman said. "We have to make money. We have to survive. But we can't take care of our employees? It's nonsensical." 

"It's a pretty huge slap in the face," she said, "not to mention dangerous."

Restaurant owners said they had high-risk staff who hadn't been vaccinated and had been planning on this priority group to give them protection. They, like their employers, don't have the choice of working from home or quitting their job. 

Chris Fuselier, the owner of the Blake Street Tavern, made his frustrations known to Polis on Twitter over the weekend. He told the governor that the "anger and resentment" among restaurant workers was "universal." Polis replied that there weren't enough vaccines. 

The governor reiterated that position Tuesday. He said restaurant workers were moved down because March 21 is the time when vaccines will actually be available to inoculate them.

Fuselier called that a "B.S." answer.

"We still have not gotten an apology saying, 'I am very sorry that we thought we could do restaurant workers on March 5, we're not able to, we have a firm date of March 21 now, I know how much this impacts your and your industry,'" he said. "Still no apology, still no explanation as to why we aren't treated the same as grocery store workers."

"No other industry has been affected like us," Fuselier continued. "What we would've hoped is that the governor would've been more empathetic, that he would've apologized today."