Frustration mounts at independent venues as state permits Broncos’ stadium to seat 5,700

Businesses ask for equitable treatment, financial relief as COVID-19 restrictions threaten permanent closure

Mishawaka Amphitheatre
Patrons of the Mishawaka Amphitheatre outside Fort Collins enjoy a socially distanced show. (Cody Allmer of Sunny Side Production)

When Gov. Jared Polis announced on Sept. 8 that up to 5,700 people would be allowed to attend a late-September Denver Broncos football game at Empower Field at Mile High Stadium, Coloradans who ordinarily work to put on events at smaller venues watched in disbelief.

“We were surprised, and frustrated, and angry … when we saw that the Broncos were able to sidestep the process,” said Chris Zacher, who serves as captain of the National Independent Venue Association’s Colorado chapter.

  We were surprised, and frustrated, and angry.   -Chris Zacher, of the National Independent Venue Association Colorado chapter

Zacher referred to the “Safer at Home” guidelines, which shape the state’s COVID-19 response. They currently dictate that in many counties, including Denver, where Mile High Stadium is located, no more than 125 people can attend an outdoor event without receiving a variance. The only counties recently allowed to expand capacity up to 500 people — Mesa, Gilpin and Rio Blanco counties — had to meet state requirements for the next phase of pandemic reopening, Protect Our Neighbors.

As captain of NIVA in Colorado, Zacher represents more than 70 independent music venues, including the Levitt Pavilion Denver, an outdoor event space that normally accommodates 7,500 to 12,000 people and where he is executive director. Many of those venues, Zacher said, can’t afford to host events at a fraction of normal capacity. Meanwhile, artists, production staff and bartenders are out of work.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

A national survey of the 2,800 live entertainment venues NIVA represents found that 90% would close permanently without significant federal funding.

Unlike the venues Zacher represents, the Broncos got to submit their plan directly to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, without first going through the city and county of Denver. “All pro teams” submit such requests “directly to the state,” a spokesperson for Denver Public Health and Environment told Newsline via email.

Polis spokesperson Conor Cahill said the Broncos plan is not considered a “variance,” or an exception from state health restrictions that’s submitted to CDPHE by a local public health agency.

“The team has been working with the state for months, according to the requirements in the public health order that professional sports must work directly with the state on any plans for spectators,” Cahill said in an emailed statement. “They developed a strong plan that applies our outdoor guidance to their extra-large venue. This is a pilot, developed after months of detailed planning. If successful, it could set the stage for other venues to adopt similar models. We will be evaluating this over the next few coming weeks.”

Zacher says he understands the importance of public health and safety, but also believes in equality — basically, that power players like a wealthy sports franchise should have to play by the same rules as everyone else.

“It’s not like we’re saying we need up to full capacity,” he said. “There has to be … some rules and regulations that allow us to operate at a bare minimum.”

Venues seek fair treatment

At the briefing Sept. 8, Polis was asked what he’d say to other venue operators who may not feel it’s fair that the Broncos got to have 5,700 people in seats by the end of the month — or 7.5% of the stadium’s capacity in normal times, which is 76,125, according to a statement from the football team.

He defended the process.

“Frankly, they’re playing by the same rules here as every other large event,” Polis said of the football team.

The Broncos are following the guidelines, he said, by separating attendees into groups of 175 people with distinct entry points.

Brittany Bowlen, the Denver Broncos’ vice president of strategic initiatives, joins Gov. Jared Polis on Sept. 8, 2020, during a news briefing about Colorado’s response to COVID-19. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

People will be encouraged to use the restrooms and concessions closest to their seats, said Brittany Bowlen, the team’s vice president of strategic initiatives.

“There will be face mask requirements as well as social distancing,” Bowlen said. She explained that attendees will be seated in “pods” of one to six people separated by 6 feet from other pods.

But Zacher and others question why Red Rocks Amphitheatre, a large outdoor venue that seats nearly 10,000, didn’t receive the same opportunity to host multiple groups of 175 people. The venue has maintained a limited schedule of events for up to 175 to attend.

Denver Arts & Venues, which owns and operates Red Rocks, confirmed there weren’t any plans in the works to expand capacity.

“We have not submitted a plan as the Broncos did,” Brian Kitts, marketing and communications director for Denver Arts & Venues, said via email. “We’ve been working within the State’s and City’s policies regarding variance requests and it’s my understanding those had been suspended until the Covid numbers improved. We’d certainly be willing to submit a plan of our own as we get into next season, assuming that’s still necessary.”

There’s been more than enough interest to hold limited-capacity events at the amphitheater.

“Every event we’ve had whether it’s yoga, a fitness event, or a live concert has sold out — which is easier to say when it’s 175 tickets,” Kitts wrote.

On July 16, CDPHE temporarily stopped accepting applications for Protect Our Neighbors and for variances from state Safer at Home guidelines, but resumed processing variance requests after two weeks.

A variance request for Levitt Pavilion was submitted to the city and county of Denver in late June. If approved, it would have allowed the venue to accommodate up to 2,500 people — which could have been safely accomplished by separating them into groups of 175 with smaller pods within those groups, Zacher said.

He said that request appeared to have been tabled with July’s spike in COVID-19 transmission, so the pavilion canceled its in-person shows for the season.

Unless a county has a variance from state guidelines, capacity is limited to 175 in areas with “medium” viral transmission — between 25 and 50 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over the last two weeks. Those with higher transmission rates, more than 50 cases per 100,000, are supposed to cap events at 125 people unless they have an approved variance. As of Sept. 13, many of the higher-population counties along the Front Range, including Denver, Boulder, Larimer, Broomfield, Jefferson, Arapahoe and Douglas fall into this category, according to data from CDPHE.

Many of Colorado’s less-populated counties, such as Clear Creek, Park and Teller, fall in areas of “low” transmission (less than 25 cases per 100,000 people) and can therefore hold events with up to 250 people.

Live events in danger

At the governor’s COVID-19 Sept. 8 briefing, Bowlen said the Broncos’ proposal had taken months of planning.

“We have truly partnered with the state as well as the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to put these plans in place,” she said, adding those plans involve “infrastructural changes to our building” as well as upgrades to “our sanitation and disinfectant protocol.”

Meanwhile, smaller venues have had to pull out all the stops to hold events during a pandemic — with wildfires in the mix.

The Mishawaka Amphitheatre outside Fort Collins has been able to host 175-person events, said owner and general manager Dani Grant. But they come at a price.

Mishawaka Ampitheatre
A view from backstage at the Mishawaka Amphitheatre. The venue has been operating at 14% capacity to comply with public health restrictions. (Cody Allmer of Sunny Side Production)

With shows that cost $10,000 to produce at 14% capacity, Grant loses around $2,500 to $3,500 per event, she said, calling it “a calculated loss.”

“I would lose more if I lost my entire staff,” she said. Earlier in the pandemic, when the venue had to close for a short time, Grant said she lost about half of the venue’s employees — including some managers she’d been training for years.

The Cameron Peak Fire has led to multiple show cancellations, for both evacuations and poor air quality. More could come this week, Grant said, when electronic funk band SunSquabi — the biggest name the venue has booked since the pandemic began — is scheduled to play four nights in a row.

Amid all this, the Broncos announcement is frustrating.

“It should be on the state of Colorado to provide some answers as to why this variance makes sense,” Grant said, referring to the football team’s ability to sell 5,700 tickets. “I don’t believe that (football games are) any safer than a festival.”

But Grant doesn’t necessarily want to be able to sell more tickets to her own shows, which she says she’s not sure she’d feel comfortable doing. She’d rather receive relief money from the state or federal government.

Mishawaka Amphitheatre has too many people on its payroll to receive federal relief funding through a grant program administered by the city of Fort Collins, she said.

And federal legislation that could rescue independent venues, such as the Save Our Stages Act and the RESTART Act, is stalled in Congress.

  This industry is not being given the respect it deserves.   -Dani Grant, owner of Mishawaka Amphitheatre

“This industry is not being given the respect it deserves,” Grant said. Some venues have found it impossible to reopen at all, she points out.

Boulder Theater, with “Stay safe Boulder” posted in the marquee, as seen on March 17, 2020, in downtown Boulder. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

As the vice president of concerts and events for Z2 Entertainment, David Weingarden has been trying to make the math work for the venues he helps to operate, including the Fox Theatre and Boulder Theater in Boulder, plus the Aggie Theatre in Fort Collins.

Starting in October, Weingarden said, Boulder Theater — which can normally hold 850 to 999 people —  will begin hosting events capped at 100. “That’s about the extent that we can do at this very moment per the state guidelines and per our square footage,” he explained.

For the Fox and Aggie, which are both indoor venues, that “doesn’t make sense,” he said — especially given health restrictions that require 25 feet of space between the band and the audience, and requirements that capacity be calculated based on a venue’s total square footage.

For those venues, Weingarden said, “we’d be at a capacity of 36, which at that point — I mean, even at 100 with the Boulder Theater that is getting close to not making sense at all. But we definitely want to get our employees back to work and we want to get the music back into the community and get the bands working again.”

The Boulder Theater plans to sell tickets for four-person tables for $200, a price that includes tacos, chips and drinks.

“I find it interesting that a place like the Mile High Stadium can have almost 6,000 people,” Weingarden said. “I mean, maybe it makes sense in some respects, but … if they’re able to get a significant variance like that, I’d be interested to hear and see how we’re able to potentially expand out a little bit more.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the capacity of Boulder Theater, which the venue had previously stated incorrectly to Newsline.

HELP US GROW
Make a tax-deductible donation.