Music Venues Will Close During COVID-19 Level Red Shutdown

It's not business as usual inside the Broadway Roxy.
It's not business as usual inside the Broadway Roxy. Paula Vrakas
With fifteen counties in Colorado moving to Level Red COVID-19 restrictions on November 20, live concerts and other in-person events are being canceled once again.

The order, which will help save lives but will also endanger dozens of independent music venues, comes with no promise of government relief, although at the same time that Governor Jared Polis talked about new restrictions, he said he's calling a special session of the Colorado Legislature to address the issue of aid. In the meantime, though, venue owners and the many people they employ will be left to fend for themselves.

As bleak as a winter shutdown is for venues, no one was shocked by the governor's announcement.

"It’s scary times out there with the coronavirus surge," says Gwen Campbell, co-owner of the Larimer Lounge, Globe Hall and Lost Lake. "Going to Level Red is not a surprise."

Some venue owners, like Curtis Wallach of the hi-dive, have been clamoring for a full shutdown accompanied by government support. Unfortunately, now they've only been granted half their wish.

Scott Happel, co-owner of the Oriental Theater and HQ, the new venue in the old 3 Kings Tavern space, supports any public measures to keep people safe. That includes having to close both of his spaces on November 20. But while his staff might be safer, they'll be out of a job.

"It means, once again, no hours for any of our employees, and no idea when work may be possible again," he explains. "Without additional funding from the city, state or feds, I don’t understand how our employees are supposed to survive and how small businesses are supposed to make it through the winter."

Under the new rules, the Larimer Lounge will be able to keep its outdoor patio open for dining — restaurants can't offer indoor dining but are allowed to serve outdoors, as well as offer to-go and delivery — but it will be postponing all of its concerts.

"We have been operating seated shows at 25 percent capacity or less and only had a few shows a week, so it will not be a monstrous effort like the initial shutdown," says Campbell.
click to enlarge Los Mocochetes at the Larimer Lounge in pre-pandemic times. - MICHAEL ANGELO SANDOVAL
Los Mocochetes at the Larimer Lounge in pre-pandemic times.
Michael Angelo Sandoval
Still, Campbell is concerned about her staff.

"The toughest part is further reduction of hours for our wonderful, hardworking employees during the holiday season," she explains. "They have worked so hard during this unprecedented time, and unemployment usually does not cover their basic bills."

Paula Vrakas, the owner of the Broadway Roxy, had scheduled six concerts a week through the end of the year.  "We will now have to cancel those, leaving upwards of twenty musicians per week and my sound techs as well out of work," she says.

Like the Larimer Lounge, the Broadway Roxy will continue to offer outdoor dining as long as it can. The venue will decrease the number of tables outside, and Vrakas will lay off twelve staff members.

"My staff now will be reduced from fifteen to three," she says. "Who knows if the staff I’ll have to temporarily lay off will find other jobs or come back to us when we are able to open indoors again? We will push on through Thanksgiving, but without consistent take-out orders, we will close our doors and hopefully reopen sometime in 2021."

Broadway Roxy, which opened a little over a year ago in the former Syntax Physic Opera space, has been struggling. Surviving is tough enough for any new club, but the pandemic has made it a nightmare. "I don’t have much fight left in me, but music makes your soul smile," Vrakas says. "What is it worth without a smiling soul?"

Every venue owner Westword has spoken with agrees that significant government aid will be necessary if the city's independent music industry is to stay afloat.
click to enlarge The Oriental Theater in better times. - MICHAEL EMERY HECKER
The Oriental Theater in better times.
Michael Emery Hecker
"Independent music venues, bars and restaurants all need help quickly," says Campbell. "The National Independent Venue Association has been very helpful advocating for us to Congress and raising money for grants through #saveourstages. The SOS Act in the proposed HEROES Act legislation includes funding to help independent venues weather the storm. Unfortunately, it has not been approved, and we really need to band together to push our legislators to work across the aisle."

Chris Zacher, executive director of the nonprofit amphitheater Levitt Pavilion Denver and co-captain of the Colorado chapter of NIVA, has been sounding the alarm that independent venues will shutter without government support for months.

"The Governor's COVID-19 team warned us weeks ago that the case count was rising and that the worst of the pandemic was yet to come," he says. "We must band together as a community and follow the guidelines in place. Science is the only path to saving lives and allowing us to return to the lives we once knew."

That sentiment is shared by most venue owners, who are eager to comply with whatever guidelines will keep people safe.

"We will continue to support the Denver government and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment actions to slow down the spread of new coronavirus cases and protect our community," says Campbell. "If we have to close for a bit to do our part, then so be it."

But she adds: "Federal action is critically needed to help those who are out of work and small businesses, including music venues, bars and restaurants."

"From a safety standpoint, we are all completely on board with taking the steps required to mitigate the virus and save lives," says Happel. "But it’s hard not to feel like our government is failing our employees specifically and live music in general."
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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris