It’s 8 o’clock on a Friday night in LoDo, and Tyler Sondag has a problem.
Almost 30 people have been following him through Denver’s nightlife neighborhood to what should be the second stop on his Denver Pub Crawl. But the guy at Sports Column’s door says they can’t come in. There’s a Wisconsin game on, and the bar has already filled to the 50 percent capacity allowed by the state’s pandemic restrictions.
Despite the cold, Sondag sports a fedora, a tropical button-up and sandals. The bright yellow umbrella he holds above his head cements his role as tour guide. The getup complements the air of confidence he carries with him: He will figure this out.
He reroutes his crawlers to the third spot on his itinerary. But when they arrive, the folks at the Giggling Grizzly on 20th Street say they only have space for 15.
“We’re very sorry for this,” he tells the crowd as a Justin Timberlake song bumps above him. “This has literally never happened in 9 months in running this.”
Less than a week later, Mayor Hancock announced bars and restaurants can only allow 25 percent of their max capacities inside, making Sondag’s job even tougher. Meanwhile, cases in Denver and Colorado have grown to levels unseen since the pandemic began.
That Friday night, many of Sondag’s customers knew going out posed risks, but nearly everyone said they just needed a night that felt normal. Plus, Sondag, his crawlers and their bartenders trust the city and state rules that dictate their interactions.
Elizabeth Ojo, who traveled from Staten Island to celebrate her cousin’s birthday, is a certified nursing assistant who saw the brunt of New York City’s infections up close. She’s mostly just gone to work and stayed home since then. She was excited when she found the pub crawl recommended on her Airbnb app.
“I figured if they were still doing this, they’re probably doing it in the most safest way possible,” she said. “Corona ruined most of my year, and I said I needed at least one trip.”
When they have the space, bartenders are happy to see Sondag’s tours walk into their establishments.
Back outside the Giggling Grizzly, Sondag thinks fast. He polls his group: Would they mind splitting up for this next hour? Everybody has already swallowed a few drinks and they’re feeling OK. Yes, they tell him. Half of the revelers will duck into the Grizzly; the rest will follow Sondag to points unknown.
“I don’t know where we’re going to go, to be honest,” he says.
Luckily, El Chapultepec next door has plenty of room. The pub crawlers filter in and find seats in the back. Only five people are allowed at each table, Sondag reminds them. They take off their masks and begin to order rounds.
Owner Angela Guerrero was waiting behind the bar when they arrived. It had been a slow night amid months of slow nights for ballpark businesses. In the beforetimes, live music was the bait that brought revelers into El Chapultepec, which has been open since 1933. These days, Guerrero said state rules have made it all but impossible to host a live show. Even if she could figure out how to fit patrons inside with a band, she probably couldn’t pay the musicians.
Guerrero was happy to serve Sondag’s crowd. But it can be tricky to field a group of people. Patrons need to split up and sit at separate tables according recent distancing rules, which she said can be “kind of hard, because they have a little bit of alcohol in them.”
She liked that the pub crawl comes with a guide. It’s one more person to make sure people stay in line while they’re inside.
“They’re helping us keep everybody at a safe distance and letting them know the rules,” she said. “It’s awesome that they’re putting stuff like this together.”
For the most part, Guerrero said drinkers have been behaving themselves. Even if they dislike Colorado’s mask order, she said people have respected the rules so she doesn’t have to close up shop.
Guerrero said her biggest priority is the health and safety of her employees and customers. State and local messaging on masks and capacity limits, she added, have done a lot to modify behavior.
But people are increasingly feeling the urge to go out, even in the face of rising case numbers. Guerrero hopes sticking to the regulations will be enough to keep her business earning while ensuring nobody gets sick.
“There’s just people that want to be out. They want to be around people, and they get tired of being at home,” she said. “If they see that we’re doing everything that we’re supposed to here, then they’ll feel safe coming in.”
As pub crawlers weighed safety risks with these urges, they leaned heavily on what officials have allowed.
The Denver Pub Crawl is Sondag’s brainchild, something he said was directly inspired from similar experiences on dozens of trips abroad. He officially kicked things off in January and said he had just four weeks of “normal” business before things went sideways. After two months off, while the city was in lockdown, he began leading tours again. Nearly every weekend since has been booked solid.
Unlike American pub crawls, which he said are basically free-for-alls with hundreds of people independently wandering in and out of open establishments, his model is all about keeping a core group of people together.
“The nature of our event is bringing people together,” he said. “I still know people from pub crawls from all over the world.”
He and fellow guide Logan Lakos greeted their customers at Brothers Bar & Grill on Market Street as they got things going. Everyone was directed to choose a name tag, prewritten with fictional names like “Seymour Butts,” and select a colored sticker to indicate if they were single or not.
To grease the social wheels, Lakos unrolled drinking games throughout the night. One involved a clothespin attached to each name tag: If a crawler successfully attached it to another crawler’s clothing without being noticed, the one pinned must chug their beer.
He shouted to the group: “If you’re crushing on them, if you think they’re attractive, that could help!”
Sondag was clear that he’s been following the latest pandemic news. As long as the bars can fit his groups, he said he’s confident his customers will remain safe.
“It’s not like we’re having rogue, underground, black-market pub crawls,” he said. “We cannot do what we do without fitting into the rules, regulations and guidelines of existing businesses.”
A chain of trust has so far allowed business to continue in LoDo. Customers like Elizabeth Ojo rely on what’s open to decide what kinds of activities are safe. Sondag relies on the bars to give him limitations, and bar owners like Guerrero are counting on the city and state to tell her what’s best.
May Gantugs, a recent transplant from Chicago who works in healthcare, said officials’ responses to the virus have given her confidence to hit the town. She doesn’t usually go to bars, but she has been eating out.
“In the last few months, there’s been a lot of adjustments. A lot has changed, and a lot of businesses have adjusted well,” she said. She’s also receptive to the economic pressures: “Businesses still need to keep going. People need to make money. People need to work as well, and just get accustomed to this life for the time being. Because no one really knows, at this point, when it’s going to end.”
Adrian Alfaro and his family joined the crawl during their visit from Texas. He thought about the virus a lot before he jumped on a plane. But once he got here, he said he’s just enjoyed the ride.
“I just went out. Didn’t think about it. You know, I’m concentrating on having fun,” he said. “You take your precautions. Do what you’re supposed to. You should be just fine. Everybody knows there’s a risk, even in the best case scenario. But hey, I may never do this again. I’m fixing to be 50.”
As Sondag’s group paid their tabs and wound down their time at El Chapultepec, it was clear the pub crawl’s social magic was setting in. Gantungs and her friend, Monica Raimondi, were deep in conversation with two guys visiting from New York. Laughter erupted from the next table as they clinked glasses and finished their libations. Then, they strapped on their masks and floated out behind Sondag’s yellow umbrella toward their next stop.