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COVER STORY: OUT IN THE OPEN | Colorado Politics takes stock on how various Colorado entities are emerging

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The political, business and governmental world around us is redefining what it means to be open with most Americans still unvaccinated and many who have been only tepidly wandering out.

Colorado Politics wanted to know if the near future is the future we'll have for a long while.

Across the board, Colorado has newborn foals on wobbly legs in barns fed by handshakes and face time, not the virtual kind.

On May 19, the Colorado Business Roundtable, made up of executives who are perpetual conveners, gathered for its first "in-person" event in more than a year. About 50 members and friends gathered for breakfast spaced apart at their tables like a gap-toothed smile at AMG National Trust Bank in Greenwood Village to hear about training employees of the future by rethinking education. About 100 others watched online.

“I feel like I need to take a picture of this crowd,” began Debbie Brown, the president and CEO of the roundtable for executives. ”It’s great to see actual people, without masks, women wearing lipstick again, all the cool things that come in a post-lockdown world.”

As former Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, who now leads the community college system, outgoing University of Colorado President Mark Kennedy and other panelists took the stage, their chairs were spaced 6 feet apart.

Coloradans are reemerging after more than 14 months in relative isolation. In the mountains, they're planning for a robust return of tourists, dollars and community spirit. Museums and concerts are trying to figure out smaller audiences for the comfort of those present and the pent-up demand to do something. Politics as usual has been anything but, as the state turns the corner toward a gubernatorial election next year.

And government is leading the way, in a meandering fashion.

At the state Capitol, mask-wearing and social distancing were hit or miss and sometimes acrimonious.

Plexiglas dividers that separated the desks of House Republicans came down weeks ago, and most have abandoned (if they did it at all) mask-wearing. By May 26, the rest of the dividers had come down, while mask-wearing continued to fade.

Time will tell if other emergency measures become a permanent feature of the building that has weathered tragedy time and again since it opened in 1894, the same year as a major flood reshaped the Boulder Valley on May 30 and a quarter century before Spanish flu killed more than 8,000 Coloradans at a time when the state had 804,000 residents.

Spacious lobby

OPEN-LEGISLATURE-05212021-KS-145

DENVER, CO - MAY 21: With only days left in the Colorado State Legislature regular session, many walking around the building are no longer wearing masks or social distancing on May 21, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. The Plexiglass dividers have been removed between the desks in the Senate, with a number also removed in the House, while some traditions have not yet returned to normal. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Political traditions take time. One includes the respective lobbies outside of the House and Senate chambers, normally a pit of politics and influence.

There are no signs of the return of the scrum, which is fine by veteran lobbyist Mary Alice Mandarich. She hasn't returned to restaurants yet, either.

“That doesn’t mean that next session, it won’t be back to the way it was,” she told Colorado Politics.

Mandarich still wears a mask and intends to keep it on through the end of the session as a precaution against new strains and other risks, she said, because she wants to protect others. 

“If we could have kept the masks early on instead of opening up, it might have stopped what happened” later in the year, such as the third wave that spelled disaster for thousands of Coloradans, she said.

Lobbyists Angie Howe and Katie Wolf agree that returning to normal will make a difference, and that includes the outer chambers. They pointed out that they can’t hear what’s going on in the House or Senate floors, since the only loudspeakers are connected to televisions inside that outer chamber, where they aren’t allowed.

But what they’re looking forward to most is having more robust conversations with lawmakers, and a hoped-for return to better stakeholder processes, something that many lobbyists have said has been sorely missing in the 2021 session. 

Democratic Rep. Alex Valdez said in his downtown Denver district – packed with restaurants, breweries and indoor gathering places – he was seeing “a real desire to go out and be around other people.”

“They're saying it could be something akin to the Roaring Twenties, which would be really nice because my district has been severely impacted by the shutdown,” he said. “The old normal was full restaurants with wait staff and staff making money. That's the normal that I think people are trying to get back to.”

Tourism take-off

No industry is raring to get back to business more than tourism, one of Colorado’s trifecta of leading employers and taxpayers alongside agriculture and energy.

The industry lost at least $5.7 billion last year, along with the temporary and full-time jobs that went with that spending. Hotel occupancy in 2020 was down 70% over 2019, according to the Colorado Tourism Office.

Most resorts have limped along with ever-changing rules, but business was way off. This summer will show how far the rebound will rise.

“We have welcomed guests to each of our resorts with no major ongoing disruptions, which has been enabled by our focus on prioritizing the health and safety of our guests, employees and communities,” said Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail resorts.

This year, season passes are spiking, an indication he sees of the resorts’ “underlying resiliency” and the returning demand for leisure travel.

Steamboat Springs is banking a return to normal, with dozens of events in the works and a return of traditional events such as the summer rodeos and Mustang Roundup, according to town officials, citing their faith in a pent-up demand and dearly reservations. 

Aspen Snowmass put the time to good use as this month. Visitors will arrive to a number of improvements to the resort’s infrastructure, including three new bike trails, improved biking terrain and expanded programs, operations and events.

The season kicks off on June 21 and ends Sept. 6, before sliding into its fall and winter hours. Hopes are high, especially for a new sightseeing trek on the Buttermilk mountain ski area via the Summit Express Lift on weekends to help attract visitors to Garfield County.

Aspen Mountain is expected to open later than usual, July 2, because of construction.

“We continue to try and give our guests and locals a plethora of activities for getting outside in nature,” said Peter Santini, Aspen Snowmass’ director of business development.

Open road blocks

As tourists return to the high country, so do roadwork delays. Traffic was having a chokehold on Colorado tourism before the pandemic. As the economy and resorts reopen, there are new ways of getting there, but with hills to climb.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is proactive in getting the word out about the projects, especially as the agency awaits billions of dollars in potential state and federal stimulus dollars to step up the work.

If Senate Bill 260 becomes law, legislation would redirect $3.9 billion in a decade using a raft of new fees and inflationary adjustments, including forcing electric vehicle drivers to pay more, just as the state encourage their use to the address climate change and air quality.

“While we have a lot of work to do, we are carefully coordinated across the state so that the typical traveler will experience limited disruptions,” said Shoshana Lew, Colorado’s highway director. “Still, if you plan to travel through the high country on I-70, it is always best to plan ahead and be prepared for changing conditions. If you are traveling during nighttime hours — when many of our lane closures are planned — expect small changes to traffic patterns and go just a little slower to handle these changes safely.”

A map, timetables and explanations of the projects are available on the CDOT website, by clicking here

The Bustang Outrider service to the mountains closed for a while last year as the state highway department adjusted to the pandemic precautions. In January, CDOT unveiled a new phone app for bus service to allow residents and visitors to book a ticket to the highway country anytime anywhere.

The app can be downloaded from Google Play and the Apple App Store. The regional bus network maintains five primary routes: Durango-Grand Junction, Gunnison-Denver, Alamosa-Pueblo, Lamar-Colorado Springs and Craig-Denver.

Web of justice

The court system is not known for moving at a rapid pace, and the transition away from the COVID-19 precautions of the past year is no exception.

“Colorado courts should continue to err on the side of safety for assembly in both public and private areas to promote public safety and public confidence in our operations,” the state’s chief justice, Brian D. Boatright, announced on May 17, extending the mask requirement in public courthouse areas for another month even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backed away from universal mask-wearing.

In some judicial districts, normalcy is closer than others. The Eighth Judicial District of Larimer and Jackson counties resumed jury trials in February, and Chief Judge Susan Blanco signed an order effective May 24 eliminating social distancing requirements and giving judges discretion over who can appear virtually.

“We’ve required people to be in person unless they are getting an exception from the judicial officer to allow them to appear by telephone or through WebEx,” she said. “If you don’t have permission, you really are expected to be here in the courthouse.”

Meanwhile, in El Paso and Teller counties, Chief Judge William Bain of the Fourth Judicial District saw valid reasons to permanently continue virtual appearances for some types of proceedings, and speculated that a judge’s use of technology might become part of their retention evaluations in the future.

By mid-May, there were approximately 3,100 pending jury trials in the district. But now that trials are resuming, Bain said it is typical to see defendants accept plea deals or cases be dropped.

“Whether it’s the district attorney who’s now looking more closely at their case and realizing they’re missing a key witness, or a defendant who, up until shortly before trial, was wanting to exercise their right to a jury trial, now realizes maybe a jury trial isn’t the best option,” he said, “that’s just a natural part of the criminal justice system.”

In the most populous judicial district, consisting of Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, “reopening” to 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner means a daunting backlog of cases: There are 349 felony cases in Arapahoe County set for trial in the next six months. Six criminal judges, who typically handle 24 trials each in a given year, will be unable to clear even half of that backlog.

The General Assembly is currently considering a bill to give a six-month extension exclusively for COVID-19 reasons beyond the existing six months the state currently has to bring the criminally accused to trial.

“Without that legislative fix, it’s possible some cases get dismissed due to speedy trial violations, and that means justice may be denied for a number of victims,” Kellner said. “Not because of something we weren’t prepared to do, but because of something we weren’t able to do because the courts were closed.”

Rebooting concerts

After more than a year without live music, Colorado concert-goers, artists, producers and venue managers couldn’t be more excited for 2021.

“After sitting it out for 12 months as an industry, that was a rough time,” said Brent Fedrizzi, AEG co-president and chief operating officer of AEG Presents Rocky Mountains. “We’re ready to bring some music back to the community. The fans are excited, we’re excited.”

“The entire music industry is exploding, coming back to life,” said Tom Boyd, director of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail. “The energy levels are going to be super high.”

 Grace Barnett, spokeswoman for Planet Bluegrass, which produces Telluride Bluegrass Festival, called it an "honor and privilege to put live music on again."

Fedrizzi said things started ramping up for the outdoor venues first. AEG produces shows at Red Rocks Amphitheater, which is owned by the city of Denver.

“Things are going more towards a residency model now, where artists will sit and play for three nights” as opposed to touring, he said.

The electronic dance music group ZHU sold out six nights in early May, even braving snow.

“Outdoors is the focus,” Fredrizzi said. “Indoors is still sitting in the Q3 and Q4 world.”

AEG operates the Blue Bird Theater (550 seats); the Gothic (1,100); the Ogden (1,650); the new venue which opened in August 2019 Mission Ballroom (3,950); the First Bank Center in Broomfield (6,000) and Ball Arena, which seats about 13,000 for concerts.

What we’ve learned is the value of music to the soul at a dark time,” he said.

Tours in '22

Most tours won’t bounce back until mid-2022, he forecast.

Ticket for the 48th Telluride Bluegrass Festival went on sale May 7, with some precautions, primarily a reduced capacity of 2,500 socially distanced revelers per day in 12 foot-by-12 foot "corrals" of 10 people.

Traditional sponsored areas aren't happening, and food will be limited to "a small assortment," organizers said, who hope to put on a full lineup of artists spread across two weekends (June 11-13 and 17-20).

“We have to respect that there’s plenty of people who don’t necessarily feel comfortable yet,” Barrett said.

Two years ago, more than 11,900 attendees descended on the town of 2,000 for the weekend.

Those who can’t find nine friends can still purchase a corral if they can afford it, otherwise they might have to wait until 2022 when the general admission festival is expected to return.

The outdoor Ford Amphitheater in Vail is open with maskless shows that include former Grateful Dead member Bob Weir, Michael Franti and Death Cab for Cutie.

“We’ll start at 2,500 seats, then move up to 2,800 as time goes on,” Boyd said.

Museums reassess

Museums in Colorado have weathered the pandemic with virtual exhibits, grants and plans for post-COVID fetes. Some museums stayed open with capacity restrictions and required masking, while others closed completely. Now, museums are opening their doors with new rules that parallel the state’s guidelines and their respective counties.

“Starting May 20, masks will be strongly encouraged for those not vaccinated,” Botanic Gardens CEO Brian Vogt said. The lush Denver site had multiple areas closed off during the pandemic.

“We are fortunate to have a very loyal visitor and membership base,” he said when asked about the flow of visitors during the pandemic. Vogt, like others in the museum world, anticipate a full reopening of areas that were closed off.

“The current focus is the final opening of several indoor areas such as the Science Pyramid, Helen Fowler Library, classrooms, and the Sturm Family Auditorium,” he said, adding they were all scheduled to open over the next six weeks. The outdoor Mordecai Children’s Garden reopens on June 1.

The Boettcher Memorial Tropical Conservatory reopened in mid-May. Outdoor areas have been open since late spring 2020 and some indoor spaces reopened in fall 2020. Vogt said when the gardens are fully open, it will be “pure joy.”

Tim Vacca, the director of programs at the Museum of Outdoor Art in Englewood, acknowledged the challenges the museum faced in the pandemic.

“While the interruption to events, education programs and in-person activities forced the cancellation or postponing of several contracts, luckily,” he said, “we have been able to keep our full-time staff on board throughout.”

Vacca said that the museum had to close its indoor galleries for cumulatively for four months, which was particularly heart wrenching: “We had just opened our blockbuster Robert Rauschenberg exhibition a couple of weeks prior to the closure in February of 2020. This was the largest profile fine art exhibition we had ever presented.”

“Luckily, we were able to extend loan agreements on the artworks and keep the exhibition up through March of 2021.”

Funds forward

Another pressing issue during the pandemic was funding, he said. Grants have been integral to keeping the museum going.

“We had to get very creative and luckily we were able to apply for several grants, many of which we received," Vacca said. "We recently applied for the Shuttered Venues grant and hope to receive help through that opportunity, though funding hasn’t been announced yet. These grants helped leverage additional loans and other creative financing to help us get through this difficult period.”

Vacca said that the museum’s newly-renovated sculpture park and venue Marjorie Park will open June 12, and the museum will host events throughout the summer and fall.

History Colorado closed its eight museums on March 13, 2020, then partially reopened June 15. The official state museum kept its supporters engaged with more digital offerings, including a 50% increase for adult education programs, said chief operating officer Dawn DiPrince.

“As public programs return to in-person formats, these digital formats will also continue in tandem,” she said.

She’s confident that museums will see a lot of traffic with the shifting state guidelines. “Public interest in visiting our museums is growing,” DiPrince said, adding that Mother's Day attendance on May 8 was 12% higher than the five-year average for the holiday.

The Museum of Nature and Science in Denver had to address its “significant budget challenge" created by being closed for 100 days and losing more than 40% of its attendance, said spokeswoman Maura O’Neel. The museum couldn't avoid layoffs and furloughs, then relied on its donors and federal government aid.

Like History Colorado, the science museum will continue with virtual programs, while summer camps return this summer. 

The museum is following current guidelines, she said, which masks are not required for fully vaccinated people and encouraged for unvaccinated people older than 10.

The ‘Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze’ , which was supposed to debut last summer, opens June 4, O’Neel said.

Political comeback

Political activity — from party meetings to county fundraisers, knocking on doors to meet-and-greets — is quickly returning to a pre-pandemic pitch, but each major party at its own pace.

“We're pretty much full steam ahead at this point,” said Joe Jackson, executive director of the Colorado Republican Party.

GOP chair Kristi Burton Brown has had an eight-county Western Slope tour and a heavy schedule of meetings on the Front Range since mid-May, he said.

Democrats are more measured.

“We are basically starting to go back to in-person events,” said state party chair Morgan Carroll. “For fully vaccinated people, things are returning to normal. At the beginning of June, we're going to see a return to voter registration, a return to canvassing.”

Carroll added that even though virtual tours had their charms, she’s anxious to see all 64 counties again, because Zooming into someone’s living room isn’t the same as driving into someone’s community.

“I think we'll see a mix of in-person and virtual events, partly because of COVID, partly because, for some people, the virtual saves you drive time and parking,” Carroll said. “Some people, we’re finding, are preferring that we keep a virtual option.”

Both parties adopted emergency rules early in the pandemic, allowing them to hold nominating assemblies and conventions virtually when large gatherings were banned and to conduct other party business remotely, including electing county and state officers this spring.

Republicans repealed the rules the first chance they got, at the GOP’s April state central committee meeting, which was a hybrid event, with more than half of the participants showing up at a hotel ballroom in Arapahoe County and the remainder participating online. Most county parties had already returned to in-person meetings.

Democrats updated their bylaws.

“We changed our emergency rules into permanent rules. We expanded our ability going forward to keep holding virtual meetings and to allow electronic voting,” Carroll said.

"In the rural places where they do have broadband, we're saving them hours of driving. The Democratic Party decided this is now the modern way to do things, it's not just with COVID. We want to have options on the table.”

Jackson said the GOP’s bylaws committee is looking at amending party rules to incorporate some approaches taken during the pandemic.

“People can look at what worked, what didn't work and put permanent bylaws in place,” he said. “We’ve learned the lessons of the pandemic, we’re looking at things that were done correctly and we should keep, and at things done poorly we should change.”

Carroll said Democratic candidates and county parties are making the most of the summer weather, with more in-person events starting to show up on the calendar in September.

“We have always cared about and followed the science on this. There will be more options for outdoor events,” she said. “Some counties are really eager to be getting to the barbecues and the fairs and the festivals. There’s just a lot of excitement that following vaccines, there's going to be a lot of things we couldn't do over the last year.”

Moving on

Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle, hopes that prediction proves clairvoyant.

“My communities rely heavily on tourism, so we are hopeful that this means that our local economies will start to prosper again this summer and see visitors return,” he said.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, were happy to see the end of a mask mandate, even though many of them ignored it.

“In part of my district, they really didn't feel like we had a statewide mass mandate anyways,” Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, a former Weld County commissioner. 

Even as life moves on, some lawmakers cited cultural scar tissue left by COVID-19 would endure. They just disagreed on for how long masks, social distancing and Zoom meetings would endure.

“I think we're going to be living the life that we've had over the last year for a long time,” Roberts said. “I'll continue to wear a mask if I'm ever feeling sick or in a very tight space like an airplane or something like that.”

Kirkmeyer predicted a fast return to the “old normal,” 45 to 60 days.

“In the winter, I think it would be different," she said, "but because it's summer things are open, it's not going to take people long to get back to their old habits.”

Sen. Dennis Hisey, a Fountain Republican, predicted “many, many months” for Coloradans to find comfort associating up close again.

“If we have any reminders that we need to continue, it may become more just a part of our culture,” he said.

As the world turns, so will Colorado, just as assuredly as hand washing and howling at dusk turned into mask-wearing and working at home.

Future answers will depend on what leaders have learned and might still have to face in virus variants, vaccine hesitancy and the restoring Colorado's once booming economy.

This story was compiled by Joey Bunch, Marianne Goodland, Pat Poblete, Michael Karlik, Dennis Huspeni, Emily Ferguson and Ernest Luning.

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