A group of Avalanche fans from across Metro Denver joined forces this week to reach a major milestone in the pandemic.

Megan Walters, 31, had seen every game that season mostly in isolation at home. But on Wednesday night, surrounded by Avs believers at a table in the Esters Neighborhood Pub, she ended a year-long hiatus to play sports with friends in a public setting.

Sweet, vaccinated, and maskless relief.

“The best thing is the noise, to be in a crowded place and to have this environment,” said Walters after every avalanche goal in the 6-3 win over St. Louis. “When was the last time you praised a stranger?”

Governor Jared Polis’ Sunday decision – ending mask mandates and capacity restrictions for most retail businesses – was well received by sports bars, restaurants, hangouts, and their sports enthusiasts in the Denver area. All in time for the NHL and NBA playoffs. The nuggets open the playoff action on Saturday evening.

“We’re confident and optimistic that the recently relaxed social distancing and capacity restrictions in local restaurants and sports bars, along with the upcoming hockey and basketball playoffs and the All-Star game in July, will provide our food and drink establishments with a much-needed need Boost, “said Sonia Riggs, CEO of the nonprofit Colorado Restaurant Association, in a statement to the Denver Post. “Colorado restaurants lost a total of $ 3 billion in 2020, but they have started on the road to recovery and playoff games will be an important part of that journey. … Even if some mandates have been removed, restaurants and sports bars will do everything possible to protect their guests and employees. “

Local eateries such as Esters, with locations in the Virginia Village and Oneida Park neighborhoods, are applauding the planned sales increase that coincides with the deep playoff runs of Avalanche and Nuggets. The pubs avoided closing the pandemic with community support and the help of takeaway pizza, owner Paul Sullivan said. They are now 100% open and have no masking requirements for vaccinated guests (honor system).

However, Esters employees will continue to wear masks until the percentage of vaccinated workers is around 85% in the coming weeks. It reflects the early guidelines that apply in a number of local sports bars.

“Overall, it was hugely positive and a breath of fresh air,” said Sullivan. “Right at the beginning we were a little hesitant. It was just crazy for all of us to wear masks every day and then you don’t have to. We don’t ask our customers to wear them now. We keep making them available to people.

“But when our bars are open again, people hang out, cheer on the game and watch sports? It’s so great. I can’t even tell you. “

At Sports Column, a LoDo mainstay for more than two decades, General Manager Kyle Hesseltine trained new employees this week to prepare for larger crowds during the playoffs. The first two Avalanche games with late evening starts on weekdays weren’t entirely sold out. But he can feel the dynamism of the fans increasing.

“It’ll only grow from here because that’s how they play,” said Hesseltine. “Every little bit will help. Of course, we’ll never make up for those dollars (lost in the pandemic), but that gets us back on track. “

AAron Ontiveroz, the Denver Post

Bartender Brittany Bogard clears the dishes as guests watch the Colorado Avalanche take on the St. Louis Blues in the first round of the NHL playoffs on Wednesday, May 19, 2021 at Ester’s Pub in Denver.

Back in Esters, where a handful of self-described hardcore Avs fans witnessed Nathan MacKinnon’s hat trick, some in the pub were still wearing masks. Denver-based Wally Waters, 35, explained why he was comfortable sticking to some COVID-19 protocols that he didn’t consider intrusive.

“We’re fine,” said Waters. “We are all fully vaccinated. I still wore my mask in the bathroom and washed my hands thoroughly. The habits are surely better. “

Being a social sports fan has proven challenging in the pandemic. Charles Lainson, 31, was one of the few Avs supporters at Esters who enjoyed a chance at normalcy.

It’s a reminder of why he loves exercise.

“It has something to do with seeing someone you’ve never met before,” said Lainson, “and they cheer the very moment you cheer.”