Mask or Vax: Bars and Restaurants Implement New Policies in Response to Mandate

Middleman is now requiring proof of vaccine.
Middleman is now requiring proof of vaccine. Lilli Gonzalez
When health officials announced on November 23 that masks would once again be mandated for public indoor spaces in Adams, Arapahoe, Denver and Jefferson counties less than 24 hours later (Boulder County had already adopted the rule), bar and restaurant owners and operators in the metro area began a familiar process: scrambling to implement new policies with nearly no notice.

The public-health order, which is currently set to run through January 3, 2022, in Denver County, requires masks for all individuals ages two and older in all indoor public spaces. For restaurants and bars, that means a return to having to enforce face-covering rules for patrons entering and moving around in establishments, though masks can be removed while customers are eating and drinking.

This time, though, there is an alternative option: mandatory vaccinations.

Restaurants and bars in Denver have been slow to adapt vaccine mandates, with a few notable exceptions. Bar Max at 2412 East Colfax Avenue became the first hospitality business in the state to do so back in April, a move that received some online backlash. A week after Denver hit the 70 percent vaccination rate in early July, Bar Max stopped requiring proof of inoculation, but with COVID cases increasing, owner Marshall Smith implemented the requirement again on July 31. In the spring, To the Wind Bistro, at 3333 East Colfax Avenue, began requiring proof of vaccine on Wednesday nights at the request of some of its guests.

Conversations around possible government mask and vaccine mandates for bars and restaurants ramped up in August and, in response, EatDenver, the local nonprofit association for independently owned restaurants, sent out a survey to its over 400 members. "The majority sentiment that we got from this survey is that, if this step is necessary in the grand scheme of curbing the pandemic and getting through it, it's going to take the government to back it in order for restaurants to feel comfortable adding it to their operations," executive director Katie Lazor explained at the time.

Shortly after the EatDenver survey went out, Bonanno Concepts — which includes Mizuna, Luca, Osteria Marco, Green Russell, Russell's Smokehouse, Vesper Lounge, Lou's Food Bar, Salt & Grinder, the Milk Market food hall and the newly reopened French 75 — became the first restaurant group in Denver to announce a vaccine requirement policy, which it rolled out at all of its locations on September 30.

That move gave Frank Bonanno's restaurants a head start on the alternative to mandatory masking. Under this new option, a bar,  restaurant or any other business can opt to become a Fully Vaccinated Facility, which means they can choose to require proof of vaccination prior to a customer entering an establishment instead of requiring masks. In order to qualify, the owner, operator or manager must verify that at least 95 percent of the people inside — including staff — are fully vaccinated. Bonanno already required all staff to be vaccinated before his group's policy went into effect; his restaurants have now had nearly two months to smooth out the process and operationalize it.

As bar and restaurant owners weigh the option of enforcing mask use versus requiring proof of vaccine, expect more to opt for mandatory vaccinations. Middleman, at 3401 East Colfax Avenue, has already announced that as of November 24, it is requiring proof of vaccination in order to enter; an Instagram post from Middleman notes: "Let's all be safe while getting lit."

Tacos Tequila Whiskey, which has two locations in Denver, also posted on Instagram, stating, "Starting tomorrow, per Denver guidelines, guests are required to wear a mask or show a vaccination card upon arrival (digital is accepted). This is through January 3rd. Hang tight."

Many other eateries, including Safta, the Bindery and Ratio Beerworks, have posted on social media about the return of mask requirements. Soon more could be rolling out vaccination requirements.

In the meantime, the bottom line is this: If you're going out to bars and restaurants during the holiday season, come prepared with a mask, proof of vaccination...and patience. 
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Molly Martin is the Westword Food & Drink editor. She’s been writing about the dining scene in Denver since 2013, and was eating her way around the city long before that. She enjoys long walks to the nearest burrito joint and nights spent sipping cocktails on Colfax.
Contact: Molly Martin