Panicked Denver residents kept liquor, marijuana stores open during coronavirus shutdown

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock reversed himself twice on March 23 when he ordered residents to stay at home to prevent spreading the coronavirus sweeping the country.

Had he stuck to his instinct, the mayor could have avoided hours of intense lobbying from residents, small-business owners, industry advocates and politicians, all of whom urged his administration toward the city’s ultimate conclusion: Liquor stores and recreational marijuana shops should be considered essential and remain open during Denver’s stay-at-home order.

Instead, Hancock double-checked during his afternoon news conference when asked by a reporter about the two types of businesses.

“As far as the liquor store and I am concerned, yes, very essential,” Hancock said with a laugh, but he looked to a city attorney for guidance, asking her to the stage.

“I don’t want to give the wrong information, but I think we’ve allowed them to continue operating, particularly for medical marijuana,” Hancock said of dispensaries.

Seconds later, Marley Bordovsky, Denver’s director of prosecution, looked into the camera and said neither liquor stores nor recreational marijuana shops were considered essential and they would close the next day under the mayor’s order.

“That’s exactly what I was going to say,” Hancock said as he reclaimed the microphone.

With that, the phones started ringing and a large lobbying effort mobilized. Conducted outside the public’s view, its goal was to keep hundreds of stores open, thousands of Denverites employed and entire industries functioning across the city.

“We have a lobbyist, we have people on the ground, and we were able to text (Hancock’s) chief of staff,” said Jeanne McEvoy, president and CEO of the Colorado Licensed Beverage Association. “One of our legislators from Denver called me and said, ‘This is crazy. I’m going to text the mayor right now.’ ”

That lawmaker, Rep. Leslie Herod, a Democrat representing a section of central Denver, said she immediately texted Alan Salazar, Hancock’s chief of staff, and later spoke to the mayor himself.

“I was watching the press conference and when he said that, I knew it was the wrong decision and it was a decision that was made on the fly without enough consideration,” Herod said.

Several considerations had been omitted, but one was more immediately apparent than the others. The growing lines outside stores obviously and dangerously flouted the minimum 6-foot social distancing recommendations to avoid spreading the coronavirus that caused Hancock’s stay-at-home order in the first place.

“I got on the horn to our lobbyist and a couple of Denver legislators at the state level and said, ‘This can’t happen. If you want to see how social distancing won’t work, you really need to get on this one,’ ” McEvoy said.

Shawnee Adelson was also surprised. The executive director of the Colorado Brewers Guild had expected that breweries would be deemed essential and kept open. The guild reached out to the mayor’s office, and brewery owners began calling City Council members they knew.

Hancock’s announcement also caught several council members off guard. Their phones immediately began lighting up.

Councilman Chris Hinds said they were not consulted before the order was issued. He received calls from people in the cannabis industry saying, “This doesn’t make any sense. What happened here?”

Councilwoman Robin Kniech and Council President Jolon Clark received a mass of messages with serious medical concerns: Closing liquor stores could send alcoholics into withdrawal, placing their health at risk and straining a medical system already spread thin by the virus.

Kniech said she called representatives at Denver Health and heard the medical staff there was already working on an amendment to Hancock’s order and had been in contact with the mayor’s office.

Clark and Hinds passed messages to Hancock’s office. The council president suspected the initial order was the result of an omission rather than a conscious decision. He pointed to Hancock’s earlier reversal in support of his theory.

Herod agreed, noting that by the time she spoke with Hancock, he was clearly open to the idea of changing the order. Hinds called the next few hours productive as lines of communication opened wide for a quick change.

The marijuana industry talks periodically with city officials, and for the most part recreational stores had already put protective measures in place, said Truman Bradley, director of the Marijuana Industry Group. After Hancock’s news conference, city officials were told that one of the state’s most highly regulated industries could safely follow public health recommendations and stay open.

The businesses were needed not only so residents could safely access their medicine or recreational marijuana, Bradley noted, but also to keep small businesses open and hold on to full- and part-time employees at a time when Coloradans were filing for unemployment en masse.

Cindy Sovine, a medical marijuana advocate, had heard rumors of imminent dispensary closures days before. In the hours before Hancock’s announcement, she and several medical marijuana patients issued a news release urging the city to keep dispensaries open. They conducted TV news interviews in dispensary parking lots. Articles began popping up that afternoon.

“Those stories were being released as the mayor was saying, ‘We’re shutting everything down,’ ” Sovine recalled.

“When he made that decision, it created absolute panic within the patient population. Within minutes there were lines out the door and around the corner at dispensaries.”

Rather than dwell on the Denver order, Sovine worked to prevent other bureaucratic dominoes from falling. She reached out to Aurora, worried Denver’s eastern neighbor would follow its lead. Before it could, circumstances would change.

Back in Denver, Salazar said afterward that he was too busy in the city’s Emergency Operations Center to give much notice to the messages. He acknowledged the initial order was a mistake but said it was news of the large crowds that encouraged the administration to take a second look and better align themselves with what they knew Gov. Jared Polis would soon order for the rest of the state.

“We all got the flurry of emails, of texts. I didn’t respond to any of that because I couldn’t,” Salazar said. “We knew by the end of the day that we had to make a change.”

The original decree to close liquor stores and pot shops had been an omission rather than an intentional decision, Salazar said. With a bit of extra time, city officials spoke with public health and state officials and arrived at a new conclusion: the stores could remain open so long as they exercised physical distancing measures.

“These are judgment calls you make,” Salazar said. “The lines are hard to draw. … That is a place where we had not looked around the corner, clearly.”

Hancock tweeted the change at 5:38 p.m., less than two hours after his original news conference began. The mayor who had jokingly told residents to stock up on liquor earlier that day then tweeted, “Please do not panic buy.”

“For those of you who have been asking, the Public Health Order has been updated to include marijuana and liquor stores,” Hancock wrote.

“I was very pleased when he reversed his decision,” said Councilman Paul Kashmann, “because the last thing we need at this point is hundreds of alcoholics showing up at hospitals with withdrawal symptoms.”

Many inside and outside of Denver’s city government believe Denverites changed city policy on that odd March day when they opened social media apps, snapped photos of dangerously crowded stores, and posted them. They were sharing photographic proof that the order was unhelpful.

Whatever the impetus for the switch, industry officials chalked it up as a win. Within two hours, their organic lobbying effort had worked. The liquor store association wrote a thank-you note to Hancock’s office in appreciation.

“I see the ultimate outcome as a great thing,” Bradley said. “Not for the industry per se, but for everybody. … We’re hiring people right now that would be filing for unemployment.”

For McEvoy, the liquor store advocate, Denver’s strange afternoon of March 23 reinforces her belief that Denverites, like all Americans, need an escape from these uncertain times and many are inclined to find it at the bottom of a cocktail glass.

“We now know why Prohibition didn’t work,” she said with a laugh.

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