US restaurants scramble for propane amid pandemic winter

FORT COLLINS, COLORADO (AP) — With coronavirus restrictions forcing restaurants to seat customers outside in the dead of winter, many are scrambling to nab erratic supplies of propane that fuel space heaters they’re relying on more than ever to keep people comfortable in the cold.

It’s one of many new headaches — but a crucial one — that go with setting up tables and tents on sidewalks, streets and patios to comply with public health restrictions.

“You’re in the middle of service and having staff run up and say, ‘We’re out of propane!’” said Melinda Maddox, manager of an establishment in Colorado.

Propane long has been a lifeline for people who live in places too remote to get natural gas piped to their homes for heat, hot water and cooking. This winter, 18-litre propane tanks have proven a new necessity for urban businesses, too, especially in places like the Rocky Mountains, where the sun often takes the edge off the chill and people still enjoy gathering on patios when the heaters are roaring.

The standard-size tanks, which contain pressurised liquid propane that turns to gas as it’s released, are usually readily available from gas stations, grocery stores or home improvement stores. But that’s not always the case lately as high demand leads to sometimes erratic supplies. “I spent one day driving an hour around town. Literally went north, south, east, west — just did a loop around Fort Collins because every gas station I went to was out. That was frustrating,” said Maddox, who manages an establishment in downtown Fort Collins, north of Denver.

Nearly all states allow at least some indoor dining, but the rules nationwide are a hodgepodge of local regulations. In Fort Collins, indoor seating at bars and restaurants is limited to 25 per cent of normal capacity, so there’s a strong incentive to seat customers outside despite the complication and expense. Local propane tank shortages result not just from higher demand but household hoarding similar to the pandemic run on toilet paper and other goods. One national tank supplier reported a 38-per-cent sales increase this winter, said Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Propane Association Tom Clark.

But Clark said the supply is there, it just may mean searching a bit more than normal. If there are 10 suppliers in a neighbourhood, “maybe one out of 10 may be out of inventory”.

A sign marks a table not to be used at Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant in Franklin, Tennessee. PHOTO: AP