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As of today, July 23, bars and restaurants in Colorado cannot sell alcohol after 10 p.m., per an executive order issued by Gov. Jared Polis in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.
“The state of inebriation in a public place is inconsistent with social distancing,” Polis said when announcing the order in a press conference on Tuesday. The governor presented a chart showing that 20 to 29 year olds are “leading the spread of infection in our state” and described the 30-day mandate as a “short-term public health necessity.”
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“I know that’s tough for people who want to get out and party,” he added, “but this is not the summer to party.” The number of new cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have roughly doubled in recent weeks.
Denver bar and restaurant owners impacted by the temporary 10 p.m. restriction see the new order as yet another blow to an already hamstrung industry.
“While I understand where that order is coming from and see the reasoning, it’s hard to also see my business and multiple friends’ businesses impacted; people around the city are saying, ‘This is our lifeline and they’re cutting out another section of our legs from beneath us,’” says Steven Waters, owner of Run For The Roses, a subterranean cocktail lounge at the Dairy Block in LoDo. Since his bar reopened in the first week of June for dine-in service, revenue has been down 75 percent, says Waters, and the new booze sales restrictions will have a “massive” financial impact. Currently, Run For The Roses attracts about 60 percent of its total business between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m., when the bar closes.
“We’ve been fighting so hard just to get by,” says Waters, who has managed to this point to keep his staff of six employees on payroll, thanks in part to a loan from the federal Payment Protection Program. It’s been a struggle. “I mean, last week was the first week that we didn’t lose money since reopening,” says Waters, who stopped paying himself over a month ago.
Waters also expressed frustration that establishments like his that are doing “everything that they can to make sure people are safe”—checking temperatures, spacing tables, wearing masks, managing the flow of patrons coming in and out—are being “lumped in” with other local venues that don’t appear to be following those same protocols.
“It’s unfortunate that there couldn’t be a way to better enforce people that are doing the wrong thing, and punish them rather than just saying, ‘Hey, this is an entire industry-wide mandate,’” he says. Waters also predicts that moving last call up will result in a “huge concentration of people that are leaving (bars and restaurants) at the exact same time. I think that’s going to create a whole mess of other problems, or amplify it,” he says.
For Kendra Anderson, owner of Bar Helix, a Negroni bar-restaurant on Larimer Street operating this summer as outdoor pop-up Cabana X, the new order is a tough hit at an already difficult time. “On one hand, I am in favor of taking proactive steps to try and keep our (COVID-19) numbers more reasonable so that in the long run, we can return back to normal—or as close to normal as we can—as soon as we can,” she says. But Anderson hasn’t seen the types of risky behavior and lack of social distancing that the governor cited as the reason for the mandate, which makes it difficult to “appreciate this approach,” she says. On top of that, the 20 to 29 age group is “not really even my demographic.”
Currently, Cabana X is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 4 to 11 p.m. Losing an hour of alcohol sales on a weekend “might not sound like a big difference,” says Anderson, but the reduction will translate to hundreds of dollars of lost revenue each night. “The bottom line for me, and for most of the other bar and restaurant owners, is that every restriction reduces our likelihood of being able to remain open, because every dime is necessary,” she says.
On Tuesday, the Tavern League of Colorado, a group representing more than 200 local bars and restaurants, filed a lawsuit against the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment over the current dine-in capacity limits established to fight the spread of coronavirus. Yesterday, the group filed an amended complaint against the last call order, reported the Denver Post. (None of the bar and restaurant owners interviewed for this story are part of the Tavern League.)
“We have yet to see any data that supports this type of drastic action,” said Fransen Hicks, executive director of the Tavern League, in a written statement, according to the Post. “This week’s decision is an unwarranted blow to an industry already struggling to survive. You will see additional business attrition statewide should this order remain in place.”
Also on Tuesday, the Tavern League, Colorado Restaurant Association, and EatDenver sent the governor a letter (as reported by Westword) citing health department data from July 15 which showed that restaurants accounted for about 30 of the state’s 414 documented COVID-19 outbreak sites and that the number of cases reported in those locations was 153—0.4 percent of total positive cases. The letter also states that nearly half of such cases occurred at restaurants without liquor licenses.
“These are challenging times and no one wants Colorado’s small businesses to bounce back stronger more than the Governor,” said Conor Cahill, press secretary for Gov. Polis, in a statement emailed to 5280. “Based on the data and science, the Governor feels he is taking the steps that are absolutely critical in order to keep our economy reopening and prevent the virus from gaining a stranglehold. The state is looking at data showing that more Coloradans in their twenties are participating in social activities that increase the risk of spreading COVID-19.” The last call order, Cahill said, is an effort to curb those activities.
Following that theme, not every local bar and restaurant owner sees the new order in a critical light. Jake Soffes, owner of cocktail bars Hudson Hill in Capitol Hill and Lady Jane in LoHi, says that the order is “an important gut check” for Denver’s hospitality industry. “(Bar and restaurant) operators should be working with the city and the state on how we can operate successfully and have financial support.”
For Bobby Stuckey, co-owner of Frasca Hospitality Group, the last call mandate came as “a relief;” the master sommelier had expected the governor to take more aggressive action against bars and restaurants. Just one of Stuckey’s establishments, wine bar Sunday Vinyl, will be affected by the 10 p.m. rule, but he says he understands his “peers are having a tough time with this.”
Still, he asks owners to consider the more drastic alternative of inside dining being prohibited again, which he predicts “will be next if not everybody gets totally on point” with mask wearing and social distancing. “It’s really up to all of us.”