Venues Cry for COVID Relief as Denver Imposes Home by 10 Order

Slim Cessna's Auto Club performing at the Oriental Theater in better times.
Slim Cessna's Auto Club performing at the Oriental Theater in better times. Jon Solomon
When it comes to COVID-19, "we are on a very dangerous path," Mayor Michael Hancock said in announcing a new set of restrictions going into effect on Sunday, November 8. They are his last-ditch attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus without having to issue another stay-at-home order.

Part of this new effort is the Home by 10 order that Hancock insisted is not a curfew; it demands that residents who are not working or doing essential business be home from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m The order is legally enforceable with fines and jail time, though the city would only use those punishments to halt egregious violations and as a last resort, Hancock said.

While the mayor attributed the latest spike in COVID-19 cases largely to private gatherings and said that restaurant owners have been responsible, the city is still doing what it can to curb late-night drinking and the recklessness that often accompanies it. "Human nature being what it is, people become less careful and less inhibited," Hancock said.

Venue owners, including Myron Melnick, who just shut the Zephyr Lounge for good, have been frustrated by customers who refuse to follow COVID-19 safety protocols, fail to wear masks, and wind up hugging each other, no matter how many times they're told to stay six feet apart. But policing mask-less patrons has become a necessary evil in the restaurant and venue world.

The hope, said Hancock, is that closing sooner will curb some of this high-risk behavior: "This order is meant to encourage people of all ages to steer clear of gatherings outside of their home."

That statement mirrored Governor Jared Polis's plea earlier this week that Coloradans cancel social gatherings and stay home.

The National Independent Venue Association, which has been clamoring for government relief for independent venues and live entertainment promoters, says the mayor's orders make sense.

"NIVA is in support of the mayor's actions," says Levitt Pavilion Executive Director Chris Zacher, co-captain of the Colorado NIVA chapter and a proponent of Save Our Stages and the RESTART Act, which would bring federal aid to the live-entertainment industry. "As a city and state, we need to get COVID-19 under control. This isn’t a political issue. It’s a health issue that greatly affects our entire community. The sooner we get this pandemic under control, the sooner we can get back to producing concerts."

But some venue owners have found themselves struggling to keep up with the city's latest rules and regulations — and even to determine what they are. As soon as bars and restaurants adapt to the latest policies, those guidelines shift, they complain. Communication isn't always clear; despite new mandates, the specifics are often fuzzy, even to the enforcers.

Donald Rossa, owner of the jazz club Dazzle, is used to improvisation, but keeping up with changing times is stressing him out. This week, he's had a brick hurled through the club windows during protests. He's had to board up his windows. Now he's scrambling to cancel or reschedule shows affected by the Home by Ten order — which he found out about when a panicked bandmember slated to play the venue asked him what the hell was going on.

"It is so vague," Rossa says. "Can we stay open till 10 p.m.? There's nothing on any sites we rely upon. As fast as these notifications are served, the phones, emails and texts light up. And I have no answers. Makes me feel like I missed a beat for my improvised drum solo.

"I just think that when communication is rolled out, we need some form of coordination," he adds. "I can improvise with the best...and we will. But from the looks of it, I have about seven bands to reschedule, cancel and/or refund. Plus some buyouts and holiday parties. It is a lot of 'ducking' work. Again and again and again."

Oriental Theater co-owner Scott Happel, whose club has been throwing socially distanced shows for months, says he's glad that the city has de-emphasized enforcement.

"We were heartened to hear during the mayor's press conference that only 1 percent of inspections of businesses resulted in any action," he says. "We have worked incredibly hard to keep our Safe Sound Series within guidelines, and are proud to say we have not had an outbreak. We are going to move up the end time of shows to 9:30 p.m. or so to comply with the new order once it is in effect next week."

Paula Vrakas, who says that the Broadway Roxy will be forced to close permanently if there is another stay-at-home order without government aid, is frustrated by the new order because she has labored tirelessly to ensure the safety of patrons and performers. If private gatherings are the problem, she wonders, why are businesses like hers being targeted?

"The mayor specifically said that restaurants and businesses have gone above and beyond to slow the spread of the virus," notes Vrakas. "He said, for the most part, regulated spaces are not the problem. So if restaurants are not the problem, why is there more regulation? What is the difference between 10 and 11 p.m. for the Home at Ten order? I'll tell you what that hour is for me: my chef’s salary.

"My restaurant and music venue will not survive another shutdown, not without local or federal assistance," she says. "So if the city wants to do this, help us! Not after they do this back-and-forth of regulations and rules, but before, so that we don’t go under trying to pay our employees and vendors."
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris