On a sunny Saturday in May last year, the 16th Street Mall would have been packed with shoppers, tourists and people-watchers. But on May 9, 2020, the first day that most Denver retail operations were allowed to reopen after the expiration of the city's stay-at-home order, most businesses remained closed along this iconic stretch, and those that unlocked their doors didn't see many customers passing through them.
And if the streets weren't entirely deserted, those who ventured out were few and very, very far between.
The City of Denver is doing everything it can to encourage folks to venture out from their homes and head downtown again, with free parking at metered spaces among the most prominent policies. But while many of the spaces were taken in the blocks just off the mall, finding one a short walk away was a snap, for reasons that became more obvious with every step.
We parked on 18th Street, and as we headed toward our destination, we strolled past Urban Farmer, in the corner of the Oxford Hotel at 1659 Wazee Street, which had a small, social-distanced line of three customers waiting to pick up food. However, this modest number of customers would soon seem like a mob.
On the mall proper, we spotted a couple of customers at a Chipotle; they were inside, going through the line to point out items in the standard pre-pandemic style, albeit at an acceptable spacing. But the sidewalks were mostly clear. We spotted no more than ten people on each giant block, and because the Mall Shuttle wasn't running — the city temporarily discontinued the service on April 5 — the only vehicles on the streets were bicycles. We saw several cyclists rolling down the middle of bus lanes, reveling in the opportunity to cruise along routes that would ordinarily be off limits.
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Only one wore a face covering, but the populace wasn't endangered. Six-foot gaps be damned; sixty-foot spans were available in many places.
Some eateries were offering pick-up service. We spotted a sole customer stroll out of the Cheesecake Factory with bags of food, but only employees were inside the huge Overland Sheepskin Co. outlet nearby.
The two Sportsfan shops on the mall had set up tables out front, with sales merchandise arrayed for perusal. At the first we encountered, two employees were chatting to pass the time while the only busker on the mall was strumming his guitar at the end of a six-foot measuring tape between him and his donation box.
After a few minutes, the performer moved to another storefront, laid out the measuring tape and donation box again, and swung into a passionate performance of the Eagles' "Hotel California." The lines "You can check out any time you like/But you can never leave" resonated in a way that songwriters Don Henley, Don Felder and Glenn Frey could never have expected.
Sole St. Shoes was the first retail business that seemed to have an actual customer inside — a guy chatting on his cell phone opposite a wall of sneakers. But the Great Clips branch remained shuttered, despite rules allowing salons to operate again, albeit only by appointment. Also closed were the shops in the Denver Pavilions, with the exception of Sock Emporium, which contained a single employee.
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The only other people in the Pavilions were an employee power-washing the outdoor seating area at Maggiano's and a mother explaining the concept of window shopping to her elementary-school-age daughter.
Heading toward Broadway, a group of a dozen people, two of whom were masked, represented the single largest collection of humanity in the vicinity. Second place belonged to three Denver police officers, who gabbed next to two cruisers parked at an intersection. Face coverings? Nope.
Among the other mall sights: a grand total of one pedicab with a customer on board, a cyclist towing a platform that held a speaker blasting the Doobie Brothers' "Long Train Runnin'" and two very well-behaved dogs, a slew of posters advertising events that were supposed to have taken place in March, and two strangers sharing a hit from a vape pen. One of the men had to move his mask aside to inhale.
A short time later, we again passed the Sportsfan outlet — and this time, there were actually several people looking at the merchandise. In this incredibly depressing context, that constituted a happy ending.