As of today, March 14 was 85 days ago. But it might as well have been a year. So much has changed since then for our bars and the food-and-beverage industry as a whole.
On March 4, I had just returned from New York City, where we hosted our first edition of The Hustle bartending competition. The event was a huge success, the room was packed full, and the concern about COVID-19 was minimal. But we soon started to hear more, and we learned that asymptomatic transmission was "possible," and that transmission of the virus was also possible through contact with infected surfaces...money, glassware, plates, silverware, pens, etc. On March 9, I met with our managers and discussed it for the first time. We agreed that something had to be done to protect our staff and guests at all of the bars.
The plan was to sanitize constantly and encourage social distancing. We met with the staff on Friday and shared the strategy. That night, things went okay; I worked the door at Occidental and things were slow. Saturday, March 14, was the day of the canceled St Patrick's Day parade. It was busy at Occidental and Williams & Graham, and moderately busy at American Bonded. Almost no one was adhering to social distancing measures: It was mayhem. We made it through the night, but we were shell-shocked. I sent a memo out the next morning telling the staff that we were going to figure out what to do, but if anyone did not want to work that night, they could have the night off, no questions asked.
As a small business that operates on the money we bring in every week, I was concerned about making payroll, but our staff's safety was the most important thing. I could see the writing on the wall: We would eventually have to close. We didn't know about PPP or any upcoming financial relief at that point; I just wanted to make sure people got paid. We opened on March 15 without incident, but it didn't feel good, it didn't feel right. So on Monday around 9 a.m. (I didn't sleep much the night before), we decided to close and called the staff in for a meeting that night. Four hours later, the mayor announced that at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, March 17, Denver would be closing bars and restaurants for at least eight weeks.
I changed the sign at Occidental to reflect our closure, and I cried while i was doing it. I have lived my life with the intention of providing a safe, harmonious and hospitable place for both guests and staff, and our future was uncertain. Later, at our staff meeting, I explained that we would have one more paycheck for them and set up computers so they could apply for unemployment (we also drank our entire stock of wine and a few bottles of whisky and tequila). We toasted to surviving the next eight weeks and to being together again.
Here we are, twelve weeks later. We did a small amount of takeout in the meantime. (We started NiteCap TakeOut, our takeout and delivery service, on May 15.) We were allowed to open to the public on May 27; I wanted to wait until at least June 3. I believe that we were open two days too long, and I did not want to open a minute too early. I proposed the June 3 date to our managers, and they pushed back. They all vehemently believed that it was too early, that we should wait two weeks so that we could see the effects of other reopenings, see if there was a spike in COVID cases, and communicate with other establishments about what their successes and challenges have been. So we agreed: We decided that our Occidental opening date would be June 10, and that we would continue with NiteCap both before and after we reopen.
We are allowed to reopen with limited capacity, distance rules and some other regulations: no video games or table games, no shared menus or shared condiments, etc. Masks are required for guests and staff. And, understandably, there are a whole host of sanitary regulations. Thankfully, takeout and delivery will still be allowed, so that we can make up some of the revenue we lose. (Encourage state legislators to continue our ability to do takeout and delivery of alcohol; go to the Colorado Restaurant Association site to show your support for the alcohol takeout and delivery bill. That way, you can take your last round home or have us bring it to you.)
American Bonded opened on June 5; Occidental will open June 10. We will open Williams & Graham at a later date to be determined, because it is too small to have guests under the current regs. And in the meantime, I will chronicle our journey here, sharing both our successes and failures with you.
We are an open book...and at least we will be open.
Sean Kenyon, owner of Williams & Graham, at 3160 Tejon Street; Occidental, at 1950 West 32nd Avenue; and American Bonded, at 2706 Larimer Street, is a longtime Westword contributor and the author of our "Behind the Bar" series.