“Remember the Titans” entertained families at the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in July. (Jon Resnick/Vail Valley Foundation)

Colorado’s Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater welcomes back shows, fans

As Europe has served as an example of how to put on drive-in shows, socially distanced arena concerts and even the odd outdoor in-person concert during the novel coronavirus pandemic, traditional concert venues on this side of the pond are getting back into the swing of things as well.

“It’s not because each area has its own political agenda. Sometimes it’s based on science,” said Tom Boyd, director of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater, a regular summer concert venue in the city of Vail, Colo., a 1 ½-hour drive from Denver.

“Eagle County, Colo., was one of the early hotspots, but we were also early to get out of this,” Boyd said, emphasizing that the amphitheater’s shows are in full accordance with local regulations and that it is working closely with local health officials to be as safe as possible.

As markets open up across the country, “How can we lead the way forward, what does it look like when we’re being respectful of COVID-19 but also aware that we cannot shut down our lives and economy completely for years and years until this passes?” Boyd said. “ What is a responsible way to open in a really cautious and careful manner? That’s what we’re doing at the Ford Amphitheater.”

The 2,500-capacity amphitheater regularly hosts major touring acts in the summer. Last year’s schedule featured two Trey Anastasio performances, as well as the Steve Miller Band, Gary Clark Jr., Bon Iver, Nathaniel Rateliff and others. This year, with capacity down to 175, shows by Lindsey Stirling and Michael Franti have moved to next summer.

Starting July 15, however, after much rescheduling and a lot of extra work, programming resumed, so far with family entertainment including showings of the new “Trolls” movie and “Remember the Titans.” Local bands have done free shows, and touring artists playing ticketed shows will begin soon, starting with Tenth Mountain Division on Aug. 4, Days Between: A Jerry Garcia Tribute for two shows Aug. 8, and The Samples on Aug. 11.

It’s not a slam dunk logistically, but Boyd said it was important to set a standard of how to operate as things open back up.

The amphitheater, which normally has a capacity of 2,500, is capped at 175 this year. (Jon Resnick/Vail Valley Foundation)

“The economics of running a show like that obviously isn’t very good,” Boyd said. “We have 35-40 people running the show, that’s including people moving through the venue cleaning at all times, cleaning on a cycle, coming in an hour before the show, sanitizing seats, working the venue all the way through the show through close. You’ve got additional bag check, additional greeters informing people of our very strict protocols, then we have ushers walking through, kindly, gently reminding people to stay 6 feet apart, wear face coverings, stay in groups of eight or less.”

The venue is part of the Vail Valley Foundation, a nonprofit raising quality of life through the arts, athletics and education, but the recently resumed summer programming at the amphitheater has paid off in other ways, Boyd said. 

“When fans are in their seats and in their family group and able to sit back with a beverage and enjoy the show — that’s been worth it,” said Boyd, acknowledging the pandemic-era reopening has been a real labor of love. “It’s a beautiful venue, they can stay in their family group and really enjoy themselves, something they haven’t been able to do for a very long time.” 

It also means a lot to the people putting on the shows.

“The artists themselves — the musicians, the guys who run production, audio, video — nothing feels better in this world than walking into a venue where you’ve got 25 people hanging speakers, working lights, they’re being employed,” Boyd said. “We’re not short shrifting or giving them half rate. We’re paying what we did last year. We’re saying, ‘Come to work.’”

Boyd acknowledged that things can change as each region assesses its own situation and enacts its rules accordingly but that they can only adapt and work day to day. 

“We feel we’re doing something that is very important, which is taking care of the secondary effect of COVID-19,” Boyd said, adding that the governor and local officials could change the rules if the situation in Colorado or locally changes. “It’s good for our economy, good for the mental health of the people coming and enjoying our shows, good for the families to have something to do instead of staying in their homes. We’ve tried to operate the best we can in the environment that we’re in.” 

The response has been positive, Boyd said, with any naysayers not understanding how careful they’ve been. And, although the first show was only July 15, Boyd said no one has gotten sick. 

“The response has been overwhelmingly positive, 500-1, maybe even less,” he said. “We’re not taking a bunch of people, throwing them in a mosh pit with a bunch of beers and saying have at it. This is a very controlled environment.” 

While any show feels like a win right now, Boyd said it’s no time to let your guard down. 

“It’s a victory for us but could also be a death knell if we do it wrong,” he said, “If i dont make sure every single guy in production is washing hands, if I didn’t have hand sanitizers every 5 feet, you can’t be sloppy about it.

“Absolutely 100% compliance is all we will accept, that’s it. Everyone working backstage, everybody on site, we wear masks all day, that’s the way it is. We’re serious about this. If we do it wrong, the governor, public health, the people watching out for us will say, ‘You guys are a potential source of spread,’ and we’re determined to do our best not to let that happen.”