Grizzly Rose owner Scott Durland, who also works as a pilot, was on a shift in another city when his phone rang on Saturday, January 30. It was a panicked staffer at his venue. Word had gotten out in the three weeks since the club had reopened for business two nights a week, and people were ready to party.
A rowdy line of fans far larger than the fifty people allowed inside was clamoring to enter the club at 5450 Lincoln Street, off Interstate 25 just north of the Denver border. Only a handful of staffers were on hand, including security. Tempers raged, and the workers feared that fights could break out in the parking lot.
The Grizzly Rose is a legendary country bar, and many fans of the genre aren't exactly known for embracing government regulations with the same enthusiasm that they show for carrying concealed firearms and getting into occasional brawls. Angry and possibly armed, a crowd turning into a mob could have become far deadlier than the pandemic, staffers feared.
"The hard part about a venue is you’re not the police," Durland says. "You don’t really have much power. You don’t want to cause a riot. Crowds can do that. You’ve got to walk a fine line maintaining the safest possible atmosphere you can and not sparking something off."
Virus or violence? That was the call that Durland had to make for his workers from several states away.
“They wanted to know what to do because they were starting to get nervous,” recalls Durland. “The security manager has been there a long time. They know what’s going on. They’re sharp about keeping everybody safe. They were like, ‘I’m not going to be able to control this.’ When you’re stuck between a rock and hard place, it’s really hard to tell everybody to get in their cars and go home. That’s why I did it.”
What he did was tell the staff to let people in. Hundreds entered the club, taking off their masks and ignoring any semblance of social distancing. There was no doubt that the Grizzly Rose was in violation of public-health guidelines. A customer shot the pandemic party on a phone and the news spread, faster than the virus, across social media.
"We got overwhelmed pretty quickly," Durland admits. "We’re only selling liquor till 10 p.m. and last call is at 9:30. One of the problems this creates is this huge demand in a short amount of time. That’s really what you saw. I didn’t know the extent of it until I looked at the numbers. I can see we obviously had more people in than fifty." He still doesn't know the exact count.
On February 1, Durland called the Tri-County Health Department and told officials that his club had been over capacity and that he would be shutting it down for the time being.
“I said, ‘We had more than fifty people,’ and I said, ‘I’m going to close, and the reason I’m going to close: If we open next weekend, all those people know we’re open,'" Durland explains. "If we open next weekend, we’ll have 10,000 people. We’ll have 10,000 people coming in. That would create a riot, because people get pissed.
“If you enforce the regulations like they’re designed — which are horrible, by the way — if you enforce that, [customers] think that’s you,” he says. “If you enforce it, it pisses people off, and it creates a huge problem with security issues. That’s what I told the health department: I can’t manage the crowd we would have if we didn’t close.”
But in the meantime, scenes from the video had made it onto TV news; people were blasting the decision to allow the crowd into the club on January 30, accusing the venue of risking the public's health for a quick dollar. Tri-County Health officially shut down Grizzly Rose — a gesture that was largely symbolic, since Durland had already closed the club.
At first he didn't talk about the situation with the press, but ultimately, Durland decided to share his view. Overall, he explains, the club had been following the state's COVID regulations and avoided publicizing its reopening so that big crowds wouldn't show up.
"Obviously," he says, "word got out."
Durland is no fan of state COVID guidelines and what he describes as a "one-size-fits-all" approach. He doesn't understand why a 2,000-capacity venue with 50,000 square feet of space like the Grizzly Rose is limited to serving fifty people — the same number that a 200-person capacity venue can host under current restrictions that hold venues to 25 percent capacity and a maximum of fifty people, whichever number is lower. That means the Grizzly Rose was operating legally at 1,000 square feet per person, an excessive amount compared to the six feet of social distancing required by law and observed by much smaller bars, restaurants and clubs.
"This is so political that you're damned if you do and damned if you don’t," Durland acknowledges. "It’s easier if you stay out of that fray. One of the things I want people to know: I’m going to follow the guidelines regardless. I don’t have a choice."
During the pandemic, dozens of restaurants, bars and venues have already closed for good, including such music-community staples as El Chapultepec and 3 Kings. Durland doesn't want to see his spot become a fatality. "I can’t imagine a day when the Grizzly Rose is not in Denver," he says. "It’s something I feel like I'm a caretaker of."
Durland has dipped into his personal savings but still has had to make drastic cutbacks. "I’ve got 72 people furloughed right now," her says. "That doesn’t include all my stage guys. Think of all my production and stage and the touring guys that come with the Grizzly Rose. It’s the first one to shut down, and it looks like it’s going to be the last one to be open."
Laid-off staffers tell him they're suffering financially and ready to get back to work.
"Of course, they’re all chomping at the bit," he says. "They're starving to death. But you can't hire anybody, because you don't have anybody to pay the bills. It's a money-losing situation. If I open the doors, I'm going to lose."
During the summer, when state guidelines allowed up to a hundred people in the venue, the Grizzly Rose was open for about three months. But for most of the past year, it's been closed. "We've done nothing," Durland says. "It's been an empty building. We got some cleaning done."
While he was able to get Paycheck Protection Program money early on, no aid has come in since. He has not received emergency funding from the state, and though he's glad that the Save Our Stages Act was included in the government's recently passed relief package, he hasn't seen a dime of it. "The Save Our Stages...of course, nothing’s coming out of that," he says. "We’re just hoping, hoping that actually comes to fruition.."
The Grizzly Rose has been an institution for decades; Durland has owned it since the late 2000s.
"The killer — the thing that really drives me crazy — whether your business lives or dies has nothing to do with how good of a business you run or how well you do it," he says. "It depends right now on what state you live in. If we lived in almost any state that borders Colorado...we could be open. The COVID doesn’t know what state we're in."
What sort of policy would Durland like to see Colorado adopt? "What I really want is nothing. No restrictions. Nothing. If you decide you want to go out, go out, or let them stay home, he says. "If [the state] wants to stay involved in it and still restricts capacity, if I had my druthers, it would be 25 percent capacity."
That's 25 percent capacity with a cap of 500 people, not fifty, in his space. Until the state raises capacities to that level, he will not be reopening the Grizzly Rose. Anything lower is not sustainable, he says.
"People are not happy," Durland concludes. "Customers are grumpy. People are just not the same as they used to be. It’s because they have literally not been out of their house. They’re frustrated. There’s right now no end in sight. All they do is watch the news and the horseshit that comes on. It’s a tough time to be any age, but this lockdown is making it worse."
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