After panicked crowds swarm Denver liquor stores and dispensaries, mayor reverses order to close both

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock changed course drastically Monday evening after announcing earlier in the day that liquor stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries would close across the city in an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

His office made a new announcement around 5 p.m. via Twitter, saying that liquor and marijuana stores “with extreme physical distancing in place” will be exempt from the mandated citywide closure of non-essential businesses starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday and continuing through April 10.

The definition of extreme is six feet, or the normal amount of social distancing that’s now recommended, the city clarified.

Hancock’s shift came just hours after he had deemed liquor stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries non-essential businesses, as opposed to groceries, gas stations and healthcare operations.

“We do not have them listed as essential,” Hancock had said of liquor stores. “As much as I might think it’s essential for me, it’s not essential for everyone.” He suggested Denver residents buy their alcohol Monday night while they still could.

And Denverites did just that, swarming their neighborhood liquor stores Monday afternoon in response — and violating social distancing requirements while they were at it — with some stores reporting lines forming a block long just 15 minutes after the mayor’s press conference.

Argonaut Wine & Liquor co-owner Josh Robinson told The Denver Post that his staff had to act like bouncers, allowing one shopper in for each person that left.

“It’s created a safety issue in the short term,” Robinson said. “The mayor said not to panic buy, but that is exactly what he encouraged people to do by shutting us down.”

Independent liquor stores weren’t the only ones confused by the first announcement.

Restaurants, bars, breweries and grocery stores selling beer (and in some cases wine and alcohol) all wondered where they would fall under the most recent crackdown.

As of Monday afternoon, bars and restaurants offering food and drinks for takeout or delivery are still considered essential businesses and will remain open for those services, Hancock clarified during the press conference.

Restaurants and bars also will still be able to sell alcohol, including wine, beer and cocktails, following an executive order from Gov. Jared Polis on Friday.

Grocery stores that either sell beer, wine, liquor or a combination thereof would be able to continue doing so while practicing extreme social distancing. As for breweries and distillery pubs, Gov. Polis included them in his Friday announcement allowing for alcohol pickups and deliveries alongside food orders.

During Monday’s press conference, Hancock said that breweries would be forced to close — but later in the day, the city clarified that breweries may continue to brew beer as long as they don’t sell directly to the public from their taprooms. As of Monday evening, there was uncertainty as to whether the city might reverse course on that decision, too.

Any other businesses still in doubt can refer to the city’s most recent mandates for guidance and keep customers at an “extreme” distance from one another in the meantime, according to Colorado liquor attorney Michael Laszlo.

“The Lord taketh away and he giveth,” Laszlo said, adding, “It’s almost like the Wild West… Do what you think is legal under your interpretation.”

This is a developing story and will be updated as more information becomes available.