It all started with a bad joke. “As much as I might think [alcohol] is essential for me,” Mayor Michael Hancock said during a March 23, 2020, press conference announcing a stay-at-home order for Denver County, “it’s not essential for everyone.” Minutes earlier, the city attorney had explained that liquor stores and recreational dispensaries would temporarily shutter, starting the next day at 5 p.m., as part of the city’s COVID-19 response. So, the mayor continued, people should stock up before prohibition went into effect. The wild scene that ensued forced the administration to reverse the ill-considered decision after only a matter of hours. To toast the one-year anniversary of that tipsy-turvy day, we asked those behind the scenes to recount the crazy afternoon.

Mayor Michael Hancock: We should’ve said, We’ll get back to you on that one, at the [press conference].

Alan Salazar, Hancock’s chief of staff: Our team had worked on the shutdown order with the city attorney and governor’s office. The truth is, none of us actually pointed out to the mayor what we recommended with regard to closing liquor stores before he spoke. It just didn’t occur to me that some of these places would feel so essential.

Alex Levine, co-founder and CEO of Green Dragon Colorado: Every dispensary we run immediately had 4/20-level traffic, maybe busier. There is a maximum amount each person can buy, so tons of people came in with their spouses or friends to get more product.

Ron Vaughn, co-owner of Argonaut Wine & Liquor in Capitol Hill: Within five minutes, we had a line around the store. Within a couple more minutes, there was a news helicopter flying overhead. Everyone was buying massive cases of beer or tons of liquor. Sometimes both.

Levine: We were trying to institute new pandemic policies. It wasn’t a great time to get huge crowds.

Jeanne McEvoy, then executive director of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association: The situation was becoming a health concern. We were supposed to be social distancing, and everyone was pushing their way into liquor stores and dispensaries. Our lobbyist funneled those concerns to the mayor.

Salazar: I had to go tell the mayor we needed to change things. The walk from the emergency operations center in the basement of the City and County Building to where he was on the fifth floor felt like one of the longest of my career.

Vaughn: After the mayor reversed his decision [around 5 p.m.] everything calmed down. But our sales increased at least 100 percent during those couple hours.

Hancock: I’ll take what happened over other possibilities. We were dealing with weighty issues, disrupting people’s lives and livelihoods. I am glad we can look back on it today and chuckle. We also got some good T-shirts out of it.

Eric, owner of the Colorado Coast Etsy shop, who asked us not to use his last name: I came up with the idea for the shirt that day. [It reads, “I Survived The Denver Prohibition March 23, 2020 3 p.m.–5 p.m.”] I decided to make it souvenir style. I’ve sold hundreds of them.

Jeff Todd, CBS Denver (KCNC) reporter who covered the event: The whole thing spoke to how unprepared we were for the pandemic in the early days. This, and everyone buying too much toilet paper.

This article was originally published in 5280 March 2021.
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.