The Liberty has revamped its spacious interior to create physically distanced seating areas. (Courtesy photo)

For those missing the camaraderie of lifting a pint or two with friends after work, or celebrating a birthday where everybody knows your name, the reopening of Telluride’s bars is most welcome. But given the public health restrictions put in place as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, watering holes have a different feel.

Physical distancing means no more mingling with strangers or even people in town you don’t see as often as a coworker, roommate or family member. Wearing a facemask inside a public space such as a bar is required unless patrons are seated.

“Stand up, mask up,” said O’Bannon’s bar manager Roxy Cox.

Even given the new rules and more spacious vibe customers will find in the bars, people have been cooperative and supportive.

“Locals have really embraced it,” Last Dollar Saloon aka The Buck co-owner Michael Lee said of operating with public health orders in place.

O’Bannon’s Cox agreed.

“For the most part, people are really, really respectful,” she said.

And though she hasn’t heard too much in the way of feedback at this early juncture, The Liberty’s bar manager Lindsey Mills said response to the bar’s interior revamping has been glowing. The bar has remodeled its spacious interior in order to be compliant with public health orders, and no longer offers seating at the bar proper.

“The Liberty has been completely remodeled,” Mills said. “We established seating ‘pods,’ if you will, that accommodate 42 bodies inside and 14 seated outside on the patio space granted to us by the town. We don’t have bar seats at the moment in order to protect our staff and our guests. We’ve establishing table service, which we find to be much more personal and effectively accommodates the newest guidelines.” 

One of the provisions, for bars being open, according to state guidelines, is that they operate in a similar fashion as restaurants, including offering food and keeping tables six feet apart. Bars “may operate up to 50 percent of the posted occupancy limit or 50 patrons indoors, whichever is less,” read the state’s guidelines, in part.

O’Bannon’s has 33 seats available and has roped off the back area of the bar, which is also a music venue. Cox says the bar’s regulars have returned and have been provided a “local’s corner” specifically for people who spend a lot of time in contact, such as coworkers and roommates. And town’s visitors have also found their way to the cool, subterranean confines of the space that is also known as The Moon at O’Bannon’s (it was once the home of the Fly Me To the Moon nightclub).

“We’ve had a lot of tourists,” Cox said. “They’ve been very, very nice and understanding.”

But with a capacity of 33 patrons, Cox said she’s had to turn people away from time to time. But turning people away doesn’t mean there cannot be a sale. To-go drinks for sale from bars and restaurants have been allowed by the state ,and imbibers can grab a drink and head for one of the common consumption areas or pocket parks that the town has designated as places where open container laws have been lifted. OB’s hours are from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.

Like the Buck and OB’s, Liberty offers food in order to keep the doors open.

“Given the new restrictions this week, we are presently serving pizza from Baked in Telluride but are hoping to expand our food offering very soon,” she said. “We’re in talks with Pandora Catering and a few other establishments to see what we might be able to offer on a single serving and to-go basis.” 

At The Buck, Lee and his partners are keeping the place at max allowable capacity — 50 downstairs and 25 on the rooftop bar — with a reservation system. He explained that though reservations are not required, seating is not guaranteed without one.

“If you want to guarantee a table it behooves you to make a reservation,” he said.

Reservations can be made via the Open Table app. Look for Last Dollar Saloon and reserve for 3 p.m., 5 p.m. or 7 p.m. Lee said there is some flexibility if the bar isn’t reserved for each seating, so staying longer is possible, but if the table or spot at the bar is claimed, patrons get two hours. Children and dogs are not permitted.

Lee said people are more than welcome to walk-up, but may not be able to get in if the bar is at capacity. As with other bars, to-go beverages are available.

Since moving around the bar is prohibited save for to step outside for a smoke or visit the restrooms, Buck staff waits on seated patrons, which has led to locals bestowing a new nickname on the longtime Colorado Avenue fixture — Buck VIP.

“We’re flattered,” Lee said. “We’re doing everything possible to make it as safe as possible.”

The Buck’s hours are 3 p.m. until 10 p.m. Closing earlier than 10 p.m. is possible if their food service ends before then. The gyro cart is set up inside to serve hungry tipplers.

Operating at a diminished capacity is a challenge for bar operators.

“We’re doing pretty good. I’m kind of surprised,” Cox said. But, she said, without festivals, “it’s been tough. We’re missing festival weekends. They can make our month.”

Lee said the no children or dogs policy has been put in place to ensure that every person in the bar is there to drink. It is, after all, how a bar makes money, especially after being closed since mid-March.

Liberty’s Mills is keeping hours from 4-10 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, but said they could be staying open later and adding to the number of days of operation as staff returns. With limited capacity and hours Mills has seen impacts to the business’s bottom line.

“We are very excited with our new shift, but that said, our sales have decreased significantly as a result of our limitations surrounding events and live music,” she said. “We hope that this isn’t our long-term reality but are grateful to be open at this time.”