Denver Officials Flip-Flop on Live-Music Rules for Restaurants

Dazzle, which has been hosting live music, is getting mixed messages from the city.EXPAND
Dazzle, which has been hosting live music, is getting mixed messages from the city.
Danielle Lirette
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The City and County of Denver is sending mixed signals to restaurant owners about whether they can host live music. This flip-flopping on the rules has been giving eateries that double as clubs — many of which are already on the brink of closing — a terrible headache and putting their businesses in jeopardy. 

Last weekend, Broadway Roxy owner Paula Vrakas hosted music in her venue and restaurant. Customers were telling her that it was the first they had seen live music since the coronavirus shutdown, and how life finally felt like it could start again.

“Live music really does invigorate your soul,” Vrakas says. “We've started focusing so much on how not to get sick or how not to spread this disease that we forgot to think about how we need this stuff in our lives.”

But on the afternoon of June 12, Vrakas and the owners of jazz venues and restaurants Dazzle and Nocturne — which have also started hosting live music — received a note from Denver Arts & Venues that included a letter from the Denver City Attorney's Office saying it had decided that no live entertainment can happen in restaurants, despite having said otherwise earlier.

"With regard to performances in your Restaurant, the safer at home public health order requires that performance theatres, concert halls, and music halls remain closed," read the letter. "This also means you may not allow live performances at this time. We apologize for any previous guidance you may have received to the contrary. We encourage you to stay up to date on all state and city orders regarding this matter.”

Dazzle owner Donald Rossa, who had already announced a June 12 Grand Reopening, with dinner and a show by Dotsero, was flabbergasted, since venues have been operating for the past week with the city’s blessing.

Not long after getting the email, Rossa says his lawyer, Jan Cleveland, spoke with the City Attorney’s Office as well as the state; Cleveland was able to help get live music approved for restaurants, at least temporarily — and certainly long enough for the Dotsero show to happen.

Under the current rules, there can be no more than ten musicians on stage, people must adhere to social distancing, masks must be worn, there can’t be hugging on or off stage, and horn players won’t be allowed because they can’t wear masks.

Nocturne owner Scott Mattson, Rossa and Vrakas had been working with Denver Arts & Venues and Levitt Pavilion executive director Chris Zacher, who’s serving as the lead for Colorado members of the National Independent Venue Association, about building a game plan and protocols for reopening venues. 

NIVA has put out a recent report stating that 90 percent of independent venues around the country risk closing, without government support. 3 Kings Tavern, La Cour and Live @ Jack's have already closed in Denver, and many venues are looking at shuttering their doors in the weeks and months to come, if they aren't allowed to return to business.

Both Rossa and Vrakas worry that they will have to close their businesses if live music isn’t allowed.

All three venues have music slated through this weekend, and Nocturne has weekly residencies booked for the rest of the month.

Mattson says that over the past week, the venue’s staff was comfortable with working and the musicians are thankful for playing again.

“We've received great feedback and continue to be open and transparent and talk with them about what is safe and what feels right,” Mattson says. “So far, the feedback from guests and employees and musicians has been nothing but thankful, and ‘Yes, you're doing it right.'”

The City of Denver, on the other hand, has been stumbling all over itself.

For this weekend, at least, it looks like the shows can go on, as long as the rules are followed. Rossa says that he's heard a more permanent directive could be coming June 15.

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