Broncos crowd-size deal wasn't special treatment, state says

Polis' office hopes agreement can be model for other outdoor venues

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 9/26/20

At a racetrack that became ground zero for the debate over Colorado's pandemic crowd-size limits, a gathering of at least hundreds amassed for a group photo at the end of a protest against what …

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Broncos crowd-size deal wasn't special treatment, state says

Polis' office hopes agreement can be model for other outdoor venues

Posted

At a racetrack that became ground zero for the debate over Colorado's pandemic crowd-size limits, a gathering of at least hundreds amassed for a group photo at the end of a protest against what organizers called “unconstitutional” public health orders and executive orders.

The “Stop the COVID Chaos” rally at Bandimere Speedway on Sept. 1 — featuring Republican state House Minority Leader Patrick Neville and conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, known for her appearances on Fox News — was the site of a different event July 4 that prompted Jefferson County Public Health to pursue legal action for violating crowd size limits. At the time, the state had limited outdoor venues to 175 people per activity at events.

A week after the protest rally, the state announced it would allow the Denver Broncos to host roughly 5,700 fans at a Sept. 27 game — a development that drew questions from media about whether state officials gave the Broncos special treatment.

SALT Magazine, an arts and culture outlet, published an article that suggested the Broncos' deal represented a “slap in the face” to event venue owners such as those in the music industry.

Gov. Jared Polis' office has pushed back on the accusations, arguing the Broncos' crowd-size agreement falls under guidelines that had already been in effect.

“The Broncos submitted a carefully crafted plan to prioritize the safety of staff and visitors that fell under existing guidance for outdoor venues,” said Shelby Wieman, a spokeswoman for the governor's office. “The state worked closely with the Broncos on this pilot to ensure all public health guidelines were being met.”

A 'pilot' plan

Colorado's agreement with the Broncos didn't allow for massive crowds packed together — rather, fans were to be separated into sections of up to 175 people, according to a Broncos news release. Since June 18, the state has allowed outdoor event crowds of up to 175 people per activity with a minimum of 6 feet between individuals or non-household contacts.

The Broncos deal actually mirrors a plan that Jefferson County worked with Bandimere to develop during the summer.

According to a statement posted on the Jefferson County Public Health website, the county health agency and Bandimere agreed to “clear, court-ordered requirements," including limiting groups within the venue to 175 people. Bandimere was to use what the state calls a "social distancing calculator" to determine how many people, up to 175, could safely maintain distance in separate areas such as individual grandstands.

Colorado recently approved a plan to allow fans at Colorado Rapids games using that method, according to a Sept. 16 letter from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Groups no larger than 175 were to use designated entrances and exits and be seated together in a defined section, the letter says.

But the Broncos appeared to be among the first organizations in Colorado widely known to have designed an event with that method of separation. The state public-health department did not directly address a question from Colorado Community Media about whether the department made efforts to let outdoor venues know about the ability to host crowds in separate 175-person groups.

The state's online guidance for outdoor events, as of Sept. 25, still appeared to imply that separate groups of 175 are only allowed in venues "that have multiple designated activities/events that are physically separated, such as a fair with activities taking place in separate buildings," rather than allowing for separate groups of 175 if they're at the same activity, such as a football game or a concert.

“The health and safety of Coloradans continues to be our top priority,” the department said in a statement. “CDPHE looks forward to working with any venue that wants to submit a plan to operate while prioritizing the health and safety of Coloradans.”

A July 30 update to Colorado's safer-at-home order — the policy that came after the statewide stay-at-home order — tweaked the order's language to say that outdoor events could allow 175 people per designated activity “or area.” The state public-health department did not comment on whether that change generally allowed large crowds to be broken into 175-person groups.

Rather, the department described the Broncos' plan as a “pilot” that “may be a model for outdoor venues looking to submit similar plans,” the department said in its statement.

At Broncos games, stadium capacity will initially be limited to less than 8% of its regular number, according to a governor's office news release.

Each group of fans were to be asked to use concession and restroom areas located in the vicinity of their section, according to the Broncos news release.

Not all outdoor venues have facilities to ensure that visitors can safely enter or that crowds do not form — aspects such as the number of bathrooms or having multiple entrances and exits, according to state officials.

The department mentioned site-specific “variances” — exceptions to the state's rules that must be applied for — as an avenue to event facilities hosting larger crowds. Site-specific variances have been allowed since an update to the safer-at-home policy on June 30, according to the state public-health department. 

Outside the limits

When Bandimere Speedway secured its agreement with Jefferson County to host larger crowds, the venue allegedly broke that deal.

Jefferson County public health officials testified in court in July that they attended portions of a July 4 event at Bandimere and witnessed public health order violations that came after the speedway had reached an agreement with the county to ensure it followed those rules. Jefferson County Public Health Executive Director Mark Johnson said Bandimere agreed to cap attendance at 4,500 but that Bandimere later said the event drew an estimated 7,500 people.

“To be clear, Bandimere did not submit an event request or site-specific variance request to the state,” the state public-health department said. “Jefferson County allowed Bandimere to host a larger crowd as long as they followed established state guidelines.”

The SALT Magazine article decrying the Broncos deal described it as giving “the Denver Broncos a special variance.” But the Broncos did not receive a variance, according to state officials.

The team worked with the state for months according to public health order requirements that professional sports teams must work directly with the state on any plans for spectators, according to state officials.

“We hope this is a model for other outdoor venues who may be looking to submit similar plans,” Wieman said. “And we look forward to working with those venues to ensure the safety of Coloradans.”

The state's most recent update to the safer-at-home policy allows for 50% capacity or up to 175 people at indoor events and 50% capacity or up to 250 people at outdoor events if a county qualifies for the least-restrictive level of new safer-at-home guidance. That can include counties with a two-week rate of up to 75 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

Arapahoe, Douglas and Elbert counties qualified for that level, while Adams, Jefferson, Denver, Broomfield and Boulder counties fell into the new middle level of safer-at-home guidance as of Sept. 25.

Community Editor Paul Albani-Burgio contributed to this story.

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