DENVER, Colo. — Vaccine passports -- a document proving you’d had your COVID-19 vaccine -- aren’t widely accepted across the country, but for one bar owner, it’s how he believes he is keeping his business alive and his customers safe.
Bar Max in Denver, Colorado, prides itself on being a warm, welcoming space for craft cocktails, good conversation and community. “We don't do screens,” said Bar Max’s owner Marshall Smith. “We don't give out the Wifi password.”
Yet, finding that community and togetherness during COVID-19 has been nearly impossible.
“We're still, you know, barely hanging on,” said Smith. The long-time bartender took over and bought the bar just months before the pandemic hit.
“It's hard to show up, hard to be here and then just hope,” said Smith. “And there were definitely days we would not get an order, and that's depressing.”
Bar Max was able to survive by packing Smith’s unique cocktail creations to-go and serving customers on the small patio in front of the restaurant. But for more than six months, no one came inside for a drink. Smith made the choice for safety reasons, but it wasn’t an easy one.
“It was a struggle. It was, it basically sucks the joy or most of the joy out of bartending,” he said.
However, Smith felt the pressure of keeping himself, his customers, and others around him healthy.
“I have asthma. I have underlying health conditions, so I definitely didn't want to get sick,” said Smith. “And even more than me, I have older parents. I have a brother who I care for.”
He almost gave up and just shut down the bar, but a few weeks ago, he felt hopeful for the first time in a while.
“It was the first day, the first day that every adult could have access to the vaccine,” he remembered.
After months of not having anybody come inside the bar to enjoy a cocktail, Smith had an idea to get people in and keep them safe: every time customers come into Bar Max, Smith asks for proof of vaccination in order for patrons to enjoy a drink inside.
For those who are not vaccinated, Smith offers patio seating outside or all of his drinks to-go.
“A vast majority of people have been very supportive,” said Smith. “They want to show proof. They're excited about it. They're happy to be in a space where they can actually relax.”
Now, Bar Max looks like it did before the COVID-19 pandemic. It's bustling and filled with neighbors reconnecting.
“You can come in, sit inside and be without a mask,” said customer Maureen McGuire. “I thought, well, that sounds wonderfully normal. I would love to experience that again.”
McGuire got her second vaccine two weeks ago and decided to celebrate by coming to Bar Max.
“We were just talking to this young gentleman, and that's something we haven't been able to do--talk to other people spontaneously in the community. That's pretty exciting!” said McGuire.
Smith said not everyone is supportive of this policy. He’s gotten plenty of backlash, but it won’t change his mind. The customers who do support him are who he cares to keep safe.
“I have zero concern that that's going to lose business for me,” said Smith. “I am absolutely keeping people out, keeping people out who are potentially a threat to the health and safety of me, my employees and my customers.”
He hopes in the months to come, more places will embrace a vaccine passport of some kind. He said the Colorado governor’s announcement gives him hope that will happen. Recently, Gov. Jared Polis said if 80% of patrons in a business can prove they are vaccinated, people can be without masks. And as of Wednesday, the CDC loosened their guidance on mask-wearing, saying those who are vaccinated no longer need to wear masks in most places, including bars and restaurants.
Smith believes this and policies like his own will help businesses get back to normal.
“We all need to talk to each other and be able to connect, and bars, restaurants are a crucial part of that,” said Smith.
The sight of people smiling and the laughter floating through the air proves, with some new rules, life can go on after a year apart.
“And you know what? If you're awkward from being locked down for a year, that's fine,” said Smith smiling. “We don't have any judgment. Come practice here!”