Bars and restaurants have been hit with some of the toughest COVID-related restrictions in Colorado, all part of the state's efforts to limit the spread of the virus. Reduced capacity, limited hours for alcohol service and, in some cases, no seating at the bar are among the regulations intended to keep customers and employees at a safe distance from each other — but some business owners say that Governor Jared Polis has gone too far, and that food and drink establishments are being unfairly targeted and potentially forced to close as a result.
On July 21, the Tavern League of Colorado, which represents more than 200 businesses with on-premises liquor licenses, filed a lawsuit against the State of Colorado and the Department of Public Health and Environment, asking for a restraining order to cease enforcement of specific capacity limits. Current restrictions require bars and restaurants to limit customers to 50 percent of the business's capacity or a maximum of fifty guests, whichever number is smaller. Larger businesses (with more than one room) are allowed up to 100 guests. But the Tavern League's suit charges that "the Numerical Capacity Limitations are imposed without regard to the viability of the establishments they affect, and indeed are a death knell for many of the Tavern League’s members."
Chris Fuselier is one of the Tavern League's most active members, and owns one of those larger businesses. His Blake Street Tavern, at 2301 Blake Street, has a capacity of 900 people, but he's currently allowed to seat only 100. The food and beverage industry as a whole has done a very good job protecting the health and safety of its workers and customers, he says. "As of July 21, only 17 outbreaks were attributed to full-service restaurants," he points out. "That's in the 4 to 5 percent range [of total outbreaks]. We just have not been presented with the science or data behind these decisions."
To top it off, Fuselier adds, the state's Liquor Enforcement Division conducted a large-scale inspection of businesses with liquor licenses on July 4 and issued only a handful of warnings out of hundreds of visits — but the entire industry is suffering because of a few bad apples. "I'm sure there are a few renegades — but come down hard on them and don't punish the other 98 percent," he adds.
On the same day that the Tavern League filed its original request for a restraining order, Governor Polis announced that all entities with liquor licenses would have to stop alcohol sales at 10 p.m. Fuselier says there's even less data to support this ruling, so the Tavern League amended its filing to also ask for a restraining order against this executive order. "I think he has this picture of wild parties going on," the bar owner says of the governor. "He's acting like we stop managing and regulating things after 10 p.m." The initial executive order included all entities with liquor licenses, but two days later, Polis updated it to exclude liquor stores and other businesses that have no on-site consumption, which Fuselier says once again unfairly targeted on-premises establishments.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
While statistics have shown a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases in people between the ages of 20 and 29 in recent weeks, Fuselier says that young people are safer drinking in bars like the Blake Street Tavern, where mask-wearing and other social distancing measures are strictly enforced, than at parties at home. As an example, he describes a situation where a group of sixteen customers came to the Blake Street Tavern and he required the group to split into two tables of eight, with no intermingling between the two groups as long as they were in the building. Had those same sixteen people stocked up on booze at a liquor store and then headed for one person's house, he argues, they surely wouldn't have followed any safe or healthy practices.
Fuselier says he's not even asking to raise his capacity to 50 percent, but only wants to be able to seat up to 250 guests at a time in the multiple rooms and patios at Blake Street. And he'd like to be able to serve alcohol until at least midnight, especially now that NHL hockey games will resume next week, and those often run past 10 p.m.
The Tavern League's case for a restraining order will be heard in Denver District Court starting at 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 29; the official defendants named in the suit are Jared Polis, in his capacity as governor of Colorado, and Jill Hunsaker Ryan, in her capacity as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Fuselier says he's hoping to get a ruling by the end of the day, or the morning of July 31 at the latest, because the immediate future of so many bars and restaurants is at stake. He says the Blake Street Tavern alone has lost $12,000 in revenue since it had to stop serving drinks after 10 p.m. on July 23, and is down $1.8 million in revenue since the beginning of the COVID pandemic in mid-March.