With Colorado’s Mask Mandate Over, Businesses Are Playing Mask Police Now. It Hasn’t Been Easy

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Moo Bar inside Milk Market in downtown Denver. May 18, 2021.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Moo Bar inside Milk Market in downtown Denver. May 18, 2021.

The CDC and the Colorado state government have eased pandemic restrictions once again. If you’re fully vaccinated, officials say you don’t need to wear a mask in most settings. That change has also left masking policies up to individual businesses. And some aren’t happy about it.

For now, some businesses aren’t changing a thing. Burns Family Artisan Ales in Denver, for instance, is keeping their policy to require masks. Their tasting room, a rustic, cozy space with soft lighting, is bare of any furniture. 

“Normally this would be an area that has a lot of couches, a lot of super comfortable chairs and rugs,” said co-owner Laura Worley. 

Now it’s packed with rows of big, wooden barrels where they store their aged beer, and no customers sit in there. They had to make the change so they could accommodate enough customers in a different space and provide six feet between them when the pandemic first hit Colorado 14 months ago. Worley said her business has had to rely on seating people inside their much larger storage room, where the barrels actually belong. 

It took some redecorating — their storage room wasn’t meant to be seen by the public — and lots of rearranging, but Worley said the reception has been pretty good.

“We had a person come in who had not been out in 14 months, at all, and said, ‘I’ve been observing what you guys are doing online, and I feel really secure coming here, so I’m here,’” Worley recalled.

Worley co-owns the brewery with her husband Wayne Burns. He said the pair have not decided when to ease their mask requirement. . 

“It’s an easier decision to consider — relaxing the mask restrictions — once we’re fully into summer with our garage doors open,” Burns said. 

Colorado is still seeing some of the highest COVID infection rates in the country. But hospitalizations are going down, thanks to the number of people getting vaccinated. 

So why are Burns and Worley keeping the mask requirement?

“I’m a Type 1 diabetic,” Burns said.

Diabetes is one medical condition that puts people at higher risk to get severely ill from COVID-19. Burns and Worley are the only employees of their small business, so they interact with guests directly. For now, they said they will  keep the masks on for their sake and for their customers. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
People walk down Main Street in Grand Junction on Aug. 8, 2020.

In Mesa County, businesses with mask requirements aren't as well received. 

Burns Family Artisan Ales may be having an easy time with the mask mandate, but it’s a different story at Out West Books in Grand Junction. 

Owner Marya Johnston said she’s had countless people push back on their mandatory mask policy for as long as it’s been around. She said she implemented masking in her store before the state did, and that some other stores around hers never encouraged masks to begin with. 

“Sometimes I feel that it’s hard, that it’s on us to make these decisions,” Johnston said. “But from the very start, we’ve kind of had to fly by the seat of our pants.”

She said she’s keeping the shop’s mask requirement to protect customers who may not be vaccinated and for people who are immunocompromised. But she said that could change if enforcing the rules becomes too much to handle for her and her staff. 

“We all agreed we’d probably go until the first of June, reassess,” she said. “‘Are we getting too much abuse from the public?’”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Rosa Castruita chops onions behind the counter at Albina by the Sea inside Milk Market in downtown Denver. May 18, 2021.

Some customers are glad that masks are off, but staffers don't feel the same. 

In Downtown Denver, there’s a colorful, open, cafeteria-style space that’s made up of several restaurants and bars called the Milk Market. On one day last week, most people wore masks as they roamed around, trying to decide what to have for lunch. Others were maskless as they enjoyed a meal or a drink. 

Among them was Jeremy Wilson, who lives in Colorado Springs. His blue medical mask was tucked under his chin as he sipped his coffee and scrolled on his cell phone. He, for one, is glad the masks are coming off. 

“I think it’s the right move. I think people are moving forward in the country,” Wilson said. “I think sometimes common sense is a little bit better than the actual science that goes behind it.”

He says he’s also happy the government isn’t calling the shots anymore. 

“I think it’s kind of like the ‘No shirt, no shoes, no service,’” he said. “Leave it up to the actual organization to make that call and stop policing us.”

But the man who owns the very establishment Wilson is in feels the complete opposite way. Denver restaurateur Frank Bonanno is less than happy about the new mandate — or lack thereof. 

“We’re having a shortage of staff. We’re having a shortage of everything and now we have to all of the sudden be the police and tell people what they can and cannot do?” Bonanno said. “I think that’s a tremendous disservice to small businesses.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Restaurateur Frank Bonanno stands inside The Stranded Pilgrim pub in his Milk Market complex at the Dairy Block in downtown Denver. May 18, 2021.

Bonanno owns several restaurants around the city. And he says he’s keeping mask restrictions up at all of them, mainly for the comfort and safety of his staff. He is not a fan of Gov. Jared Polis and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s decision to effectively end the mask mandate. Bonanno said leaving mask reinforcement up to each business owner creates confusion, stress and the potential for angry patrons.

“Now we’re the bad guys because we’re trying to look out for our staff? We just want cohesion amongst what it is,” he said. “It’s a pandemic. Govern. That’s why you were elected.”

Standing inside the Milk Market, customer Mariana Gallegos wore a black surgical mask while she waited for her to-go order. She said the constantly changing guidance is a lot to keep track of.

“I think it’s a little confusing because you don’t know who’s vaccinated and who’s not. And I feel like it can lead to a lot of confusion about when you should and shouldn’t wear a mask,” she said. “I’m gonna keep wearing my mask for a while, I think.”

Gallegos said she feels safe these days, especially since she became fully vaccinated in February, but she wants to keep wearing a mask in consideration of others.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Silvia Gonzalez works the ice cream counter at Cornicello at Milk Market in downtown Denver. May 18, 2021.

‘If somebody comes in and they have a mask on, I put my mask on. That’s been my guide.’

For the businesses that were around before the pandemic, they’re dusting off counters and un-stacking chairs after a year of not being used. But there were also businesses that opened during that time. One of them is Horror Bar on Colfax Avenue in Denver. It’s been open for 10 weeks, and owner Nathan Szklarski says the new rules are overwhelming. 

“I don’t want to say we’ve got it harder, but definitely we don’t have anywhere to go back to. You know what I mean?” Szklarski said. “It’s not like, ‘Oh yeah, we’re just going to open it up like we used to,’ because we didn’t exist before.”

The bar’s success has been growing steadily for weeks, attracting fans of the horror genre who come to watch the film of the evening and imbibe cocktails inspired by famous scary movies. At first it was sustainable, but once Gov. Polis announced the easing of restrictions, people have been coming to the business in droves. And Szklarski has decided to go along with it and eliminate the need for masks and social distancing. 

“Now with the limited restrictions — well, no restrictions for us — it’s kind of a free for all,” he said. 

Szklarski says he didn’t really think about what it would be like once things returned to normal, and now he’s playing catch up. He’s been spending time training new hires and ordering more furniture. 

Some new retail businesses have popped up as well. Jessica Austin is a huge houseplant enthusiast, so she decided to start her own nursery called Mrs. Fancy Plants. It’s based out of her backyard in Greenwood Village, although she has plans to buy a retail space. 

Austin’s main concern about the rolled back rules is how it could affect small children who can’t get vaccinated yet, and whether her customers will be comfortable. 

“If somebody comes in and they have a mask on, I put my mask on,” Austin said. “That’s been my guide, based on the customer.”

She’s still looking at case numbers in countries like India and keeping an eye on the variants that are spreading around the U.S. And she says she’s going to keep her masks around the home even when things calm down further.

“I understand people’s apprehensions and dislike for them,” she said. “But it is what it is. I don’t think that we’re ever going to be back to exactly how we were before this hit.”