Denver bar owners say their fates rest in the hands of Governor Jared Polis and his decision this week whether or not to tack on a few more hours to their nighttime business.
With bars and nightclubs that don’t serve food closed in Colorado since the end of June, Polis in July turned to restaurants and bars that do serve food, mandating a 10 p.m. last call for alcohol for 30 days to discourage further spread of coronavirus from late-night drinking.
On Friday, Polis’ mandate will expire, and he has yet to clarify whether the 10 p.m. last call will remain in place through the rest of the summer.
“With lower numbers, I’m hopeful that we can make progress on expanding the opportunity for people to enjoy themselves,” Polis said during a Tuesday press conference. “But at the same time, with the virus present, we’re nowhere near a situation where we can return to the way we were living last year without (…) destroying our economy and costing thousands of lives.”
But some bar owners say they may not survive if the 10 p.m. rule continues.
This week, Justin Anthony sat down to compare revenues from before and after the last call was enacted at 10 bars he and his partners own around the city, from River North to downtown, Hale and East Colfax. Across the board, he said, their business has decreased by more than 60% over the last 30 days.
And that figure is compared to an already reduced revenue due to the pandemic, Anthony clarified.
“We’re talking 60% of 60% (of pre-COVID sales),” he said.
At the Ballpark district’s Blake Street Tavern, owner Chris Fuselier says his sales are down 20% since the 10 p.m. last call was enacted, but 80% overall since the pandemic. And down the street from him, Pony Up owner Angela Neri has lost 50-75% of her business, which would typically occur between 10 p.m. and midnight.
Neri said she chose to stop serving by 12 a.m. even before the 10 p.m. last call was ordered, but she caters to a restaurant industry crowd that would normally leave work and have dinner and drinks at the bar in those later hours.
She and other owners think that a midnight last call now could make all the difference.
“I really am praying that (Polis) meets us in the middle at 12 (a.m.), and I think the vast majority of us would be really relieved if that happened,” Fuselier told The Denver Post. “Because if (10 p.m.) is extended for another 30 days, that would be another nail in the coffin for a lot of us.”
At the end of July, the Department of Public Health and Environment started working with Denver Sheriff Dept. to perform increased “compliance monitoring” at businesses across the city, including but not limited to bars and restaurants. The monitoring includes complaint-based as well as pre-emptive visits, DDPHE division director Danica Lee told The Denver Post.
She said the reasoning behind increased monitoring was a “growing trend of people who tested positive reporting that they had engaged in more activities outside of their home in public spaces and businesses.”
Since the six-week program started at the end of July, DDPHE has issued four citations specifically to restaurants for alcohol sales after 10 p.m. and other COVID-related violations.
“We believe that the responsiveness of the business community in doing their part to comply with public health orders has been important in decreasing the case numbers we’re seeing in August,” Lee said. “We’re seeing businesses bending over backwards.”
But owners like Anthony and Fuselier think the city’s and state’s focus this past month on regulating bars and restaurants has been excessive for an industry that is trained in crowd control and responsible service.
“We are so regulated, all of our patrons are seated, and we are not allowed any congregation at the bar,” Fuselier said. “You know, it’s not like at 10:01 we start dancing on tables and the party gets started.”
And Anthony thinks the statewide mask mandate, as opposed to an earlier last call, has probably played a larger role in managing Colorado’s outbreak.
“The perception that the public has is the rules are being flaunted (by our businesses), which is just not the case,” he said.
Denver’s COVID-19 cases have been dropping in August; the city reported roughly half as many new cases last week as it did at the end of July. But officials worry about the end of summer, the return to classes at schools and universities and a potential spike in COVID-19 from Labor Day celebrations.
To which Fuselier offers simple answers. “If there’s a potential outbreak in our college towns like Boulder and Fort Collins, then fine, leave the 10 p.m. rule there,” he said. “As far as Labor Day goes, my reply to that: It’s not a restaurant or bar weekend.”
Even if vacationers and locals head outside for Labor Day, though, Polis’ concern is clear: “We also know that a social environment akin to a nightclub or late-night bar where people are inebriated provides an ideal environment for the virus to spread,” he said Tuesday.
And Fuselier thinks that sentiment will be hard to shake moving forward.
“Subconsciously, the governor is sending a message that we (bars and restaurants) are unsafe,” he said. Together with The Tavern League of Colorado, Fuselier is pressing forward on a lawsuit against the State that argues for a later last call and increased capacity for larger venues. He said his hope is for mediation in the next three to six weeks.
For now, he has rented a “giant” TV for his new 130-person, socially distanced beer garden. And when the Avs are playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs next week during the late slot, you can bet he’s not going to turn off the game by 10 p.m., regardless of where last call stands.
“I will take a citation for that,” Fuselier said.
Updated Aug. 21 at 3:54 p.m.The following corrected information has been added to this article: Because of a reporting error, Danica Lee’s title as well as the division of Denver law enforcement that her office is working with were misstated in a previous version of this article. Lee is the Director of Public Health Investigations for DDPHE. She is working with Denver Sheriff Department to monitor businesses.
Subscribe to our new food newsletter, Stuffed, to get Denver food and drink news sent straight to your inbox.