During a September 8 press conference about the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Governor Jared Polis and Brittany Bowlen, Denver Broncos vice president of strategic initiatives (and likely future face of the franchise), jointly announced that as many as 5,700 fans will be able to attend the September 27 Empower Field at Mile High home game when the Broncos face off against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under a plan blessed by public-health officials.
Within minutes, social media exploded with assertions that the state had shown favoritism toward the Broncos in granting this privilege — an assertion refuted by both Polis and Bowlen in a subsequent question-and-answer session. But Chris Zacher, CEO and executive director of Levitt Pavilion Denver and head of Colorado's chapter of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), doesn't buy the denials.
Asked if he thinks the powers-that-be in Colorado are prejudiced in favor of the Broncos, Zacher replies, "I don't know any other way to really look at it."
Zacher makes a compelling argument. Like Empower Field at Mile High, Levitt Pavilion, which officially canceled its 2020 season last month, is an outdoor venue, albeit a much smaller one than the Broncos' stadium; its capacity is 7,500, less than 10 percent of Empower Field's 76,125. Moreover, Levitt administrators had submitted a proposal for staging events that sounds extremely similar to the one the Broncos will put in place: dividing attendees into cohorts of 175 (the limit under Colorado's current public health order) that would use specific entry points, concession areas and restrooms, and be kept separate from other groups, so that in the event of a COVID-19 infection, contact tracing could be limited and expedited. Masking and other safety protocols that will be practiced at the Broncos game were part of the Levitt concept, too, Zacher emphasizes.
But while the Broncos are being permitted to move forward with this approach, the Levitt proposition hasn't even been considered, for reasons Zacher has been told relate to the variance process established in response to the novel coronavirus.
"The state has different levels set up for the spread of COVID-19," he explains. "Each of these levels allows for X amount of people to come into bars, restaurants, outdoor and indoor venues, and they're different based on your setup and square footage. It's standardized across the board for the entire state, but each county can apply for a variance from the state — and until a county gets a variance, each venue must operate under the state's rules."
While Polis confirmed on September 8 that variances had been granted to Mesa, Gilpin and Rio Blanco counties, which can now set up standards of their own because of low viral spread, Mayor Michael Hancock said that Denver is "nowhere close" to achieving this status during an August 27 disease update.
Given that, Zacher understood that every venue in Denver, including Empower Field, had to follow the state rules limiting attendance at outdoor events to 175 people, period. When Polis and Bowlen revealed otherwise, "we were taken aback," he confirms. "The City and County of Denver hasn't been allowing any variance requests on their desk to be processed until we move into the lower level of COVID-19 — and yet the NFL and the Broncos were able to use their political power to bypass the standardized process everyone else has to follow. And that raised eyebrows, for sure."
Many of Zacher's frustrations center on Polis, who earned widespread support in his race for governor from the live-entertainment industry. "The fact that the governor is bypassing the very protocols he put in place is disheartening," he maintains. "He's essentially turning his back on us, or at least it feels that way. It's not like we were wanting to pack people in. We wanted to do things the way the Broncos are going to be doing — which is why we want a fair process as we move through these things that doesn't reward organizations based on their perceived standing within the community."
While Levitt might seem like a minor player compared to the Broncos, Zacher points out that in his position with NIVA, "I represent over seventy venues across the state that are all in the same circumstances. We're talking about an industry that produces $1.9 billion in economic impact in Colorado. We're the third-largest driver of the economy, behind tourism and mining. We employ thousands of employees, and we impact a lot of other people: Uber drivers and Lyft drivers and news sources and all the places that benefit when we produce shows. They're all suffering."
Zacher says he's hopeful that he will soon be able to deliver this message in person. "We've secured a meeting with the governor next week to discuss this in more detail," he notes.
In the meantime, he says, "I just think that if you're putting processes in place where the onus is on cities and counties, allowing one organization within that city and county not to have to follow those guidelines is a bad look."
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