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Owner to Polis: Shut Venues Down, Provide COVID-19 Aid Now

The hi-dive has a different look after COVID-19.EXPAND
The hi-dive has a different look after COVID-19.
Curtis Wallach

To halt the COVID-19 spike that threatens to fill hospital beds statewide, Governor Jared Polis is begging people to stay home. Mayor Michael Hancock is imploring people to only socialize with their households for the next few weeks. Counties across Colorado are imposing curfews, while public-health officials demand that people social-distance, avoid public gatherings and wear masks to prevent another stay-at-home order.

Many in the music community support those efforts.

Chris Zacher, co-captain of the National Independent Venue Association's Colorado chapter, says that his organization, which represents more than 2,000 independent music venues and promoters nationwide, applauds Hancock's recent Home by 10 order, which demands that bars, restaurants and venues close at 10 p.m., even as some owners gripe about the restrictions.

"As a city and state, we need to get COVD-19 under control," Zacher says. "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."

Some music-venue owners, including Curtis Wallach, co-owner of the hi-dive, are calling for a total shutdown of clubs, on one condition: Colorado needs to provide economic aid that would prevent the live-entertainment sector, one of the biggest employers in the state, from going under.

So far, the government has failed to throw the industry a viable lifesaver. Thousands of people are out of work and venues are sinking under growing debt, as reduced capacities make it impossible for them to stay afloat.  "I'd love for them to just shut us all down and offer relief," Wallach says. "That said, I realize that without federal funds to back that decision, any meaningful relief is impossible."

The Paycheck Protection Program, which strapped businesses with debt, didn't offer venues enough to keep their staffs employed through half the year, much less into 2021.

Now the businesses face a tough choice: Close permanently or stay open with a reduced capacity that makes it impossible to cover the bills and could also endanger customers and staff. Employees, too, are in a bind, trying to decide whether they should make money doing something that increases their risk of contracting COVID-19 or quit their jobs, face economic uncertainty and possibly remain out of work long after a vaccine arrives.

The city and state aren't stepping up with incentives that make these decisions any easier.

Denver Arts & Venues offered a total of $700,000 to venues from CARES Act money, but that's not enough to keep the sector above water. And while the City of Denver has a new round of grants available to restaurants to help them prepare for winter, they're dependent on the businesses staying open.

"Denver is offering grants for outdoor winterizing costs, but there’s a catch," says Paula Vrakas, owner of the Broadway Roxy, which opened in 2019 and is on the brink of closure. "You have to give the receipts. It's like, dude, if I had the money to buy it, I wouldn’t be looking for a grant. I need the grant so I can buy it. Sure, I can put it on a personal credit card, but what if you don't approve the grant? What then? I'm just out with a fancy patio and closed doors!"

Zacher's organization has been championing the RESTART Act and Save Our Stages for months; both would offer much-needed cash to keep the industry alive through the pandemic, he notes. But he isn't optimistic that a federal bailout will come until after President-Elect Joe Biden's administration takes office and some of the partisan gridlock that has hampered COVID-19 relief efforts dissolves.

The state NIVA branch and other groups have been meeting with the governor's office to discuss plans for reopening venues in 2021, and also to get short-term updates as to how the state is managing the spread of the virus.

"In our call last week, the governor's office discussed the severity of this current uptick in the caseload," recalls Zacher. "Unfortunately, as a state, we are taking a step back from the progress we had been making. While we push forward with planned reopening sometime in 2021, we must adhere to the guidelines currently in place. Denver, in particular, is a major [hub] with a lot of movement in and out of the city, which makes the viral spread more difficult to manage than in a smaller town.

"We’re really up against the ropes right now," he adds. "The Governor's COVID-19 team is projecting that the worst of it will hit sometime in late November to early January. The moves they are currently making are an attempt to slow the spread before our hospitals are beyond capacity. I want to point out that as frustrating as this is for business owners, the governor and mayor are listening to the scientists and following their lead."

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Some venue owners wish there were more consistency to the messaging.

"This whole allowing bars to be open while simultaneously being extremely outspoken to the public to not visit bars is more or less fucked," explains Wallach.

Even so, he acknowledges that Polis is in a tough spot, balancing public-health needs and the economic future of the state.

Says Wallach: "I certainly don't envy his job right now." 

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