Only you can decide if it makes sense to celebrate the holidays in public this year.
All available evidence — and each new government mandate — seems to say, “Tread carefully. If at all.”
“The general message is that right now, with cases probably as high as they’ve ever been, everybody needs to minimize the number of people they are interacting with as much as they can,” said Dr. Lisa Miller, professor of epidemiology with the Colorado School of Public Health. “There are some things that are very clear, and then I think that there are some things that are up to individuals’ risk tolerance.”
While familiar by now, this holiday round of uncertainty — stay at home, or venture out? — poses another existential threat to business owners and holiday event organizers ramping up efforts to make money before 2020 closes, whether through timed, ticketed lighting displays, feel-good food and drink, or some semblance of retail normalcy.
They don’t want to get ahead of themselves, and all must comply with whatever safety orders govern their gatherings. But it’s a fine line to walk — inviting people to your warm, happy table or outdoor holiday show while maintaining a torturous vigil for the latest (and perhaps biggest) public-health hammer stroke to fall.
“We’ve had so much of a ‘cancel culture’ this year,” said Cindy Mackin, visitor services manager for the city of Loveland, who recast the pejorative for online accountability (“cancel culture”) as a COVID-specific term. “We’ll follow the state orders, as we have this whole time, but no matter what our lights are turning on on Nov. 14, and they’re not turning back off until Jan. 1.”
Regardless of what happens between now and Jan. 1, you’re never going to hear: “Don’t drive around and look at lights.” But you’re also not likely to hear “Don’t go to restaurants, bars, outdoor markets, lightings or other holiday events” — even from elected officials.
For one, they and metro area business owners don’t want to make the lives of the people who rely on them more difficult than they already are. Face-to-face sales of food, drink and local craft goods and gifts can be make-or-break for service-industry workers, independent artists and vendors, whether they’re at high-end eateries, tightly curated markets at The Dairy Block, or the more traditional (if redesigned for 2020) Christkindl Market, which is decamping from the 16th Street Mall’s Skyline Park to the more spacious Civic Center before its Nov 20 debut.
“I feel a tremendous responsibility,” said Kenny Nelson, production manager for Fetch Markets, which is producing the free-admission holiday market for Cherry Creek North’s 16-block Winter Wanderland this year. “When I go out, I enjoy feeling safe, and that’s about seeing great signage right at the very front, seeing staff wearing masks, having hand sanitizer readily available and (otherwise) demonstrating that they really care.”
Nelson and his team are ensuring that the Fetch-produced Cherry Creek Holiday Market, scheduled for Nov. 19 through Dec. 23, has the full alphabet of scenarios covered. Plan A, of course, is to open under current guidelines with a 175-person outdoor capacity and offer roughly 20 different, rotating vendors each week.
That’s a far cry from 2019, when Fetch hosted 233 unique vendors across three weekends at Broadway’s Sports Castle. Instead of spreading out over 63,000 square feet and three indoor floors, this year’s holiday market will occupy 8,700 flat, square feet at Fillmore Plaza in Cherry Creek North for 35 straight days, with reservations encouraged and contact tracing available via Eventbrite registration.
But apples-to-apples comparisons with last year are impossible, programmers say, given the host of complicating factors. Certain events are canceled entirely this year, such as Hudson Gardens & Event Center’s annual light display in Littleton. Some, such as the 9News Parade of Lights, have mutated into stationary Instagram backdrops that will be placed around downtown Denver. And even mall-Santa visits have become masked, socially distanced affairs (if they’re happening at all).
“We’re doing everything we can — within our control,” said Jeannie McFarland Johnson, marketing director for the Cherry Creek North shopping district, which will be adorned with 500,000-plus lights in the coming weeks. “This has been a real challenge for everybody to identify ways we can still share joy, but in a safe and responsible manner.”
Cherry Creek’s efforts include one-way pathways through public gathering spots and “natural social distancing” around the entire, 16-block area, Johnson said. Twenty-two new hand sanitizer stations have been installed, and “zones” with separate entrances and exits will help staffers track the amount and density of visitors.
Furthermore, the outdoors are on their side, event organizers say. That’s important for not only health but also consumer psychology. Public food, drink and gift-shopping, along with cultural programming, is being sold as a reprieve from our feverish, isolated cabins. And while restaurants and outdoor events have not been blamed as contributing significantly to the current rise in cases, messaging is crucial, since any public exposure carries risk at the moment.
“Definitely at the low bar, congregating with people outside your own household, indoors, with no mask, I think no one should be doing,” said professor of epidemiology Miller. “But I think that message is very clear. … That’s where your own risk tolerance comes in.”
If you feel more comfortable in a virtual apres-ski bubble than at an indoor table, you’re not alone — although it’s not for lack of trying on the dining industry’s part.
“Restaurants are highly regulated and trained in keeping patrons safe, and many are going above and beyond the COVID-19 sanitation recommendations to keep their staffs and guests healthy,” said Sonia Riggs, CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.
Some things are true of all restaurants right now: They are required to socially distance parties; workers must always wear masks; diners are required to wear masks when moving around the space; and restaurants must limit all gatherings/congregation between individuals in different parties.
“This is in stark contrast with a private party,” Riggs said, “where people might mingle, mask-less and not socially distanced, for several hours.”
Events such as Loveland’s Winter Wonderlights, which returns to Chapungu Sculpture Park at Centerra in Loveland Nov. 14 through Jan. 1, are counting on their outdoor format to present “live weekends” with socially distanced entertainment, as well as Instagram-worthy, themed vignettes, food and drink vendors, and “North Poles” that up to seven people are allowed to congregate around.
It’s all in service of subconsciously directing visitors into manageable traffic patterns, as airport and museum-exhibit designers have long appreciated. Last year, Winter Wonderlights attracted up to 200 people on weeknights, and more than 3,000 on Fridays and Saturdays.
“Last year, in our big, 40-foot-round inflatable igloo, it was just packed with people at all times because it was heated,” Loveland’s Mackin said. “That was the No. 1 thing we could not do if we were going to have live nights this year. And even though we’re a 26-acre park, we can only have 175 people at a time, so you still need to figure out how to get people in and out safely, guide traffic, and (prevent) people from gathering on areas like the Great Lawn to watch shows.”
While Loveland’s programming is free, reservations are required. And demand is clearly there, Mackin noted: The 800 tickets available for Saturday’s lighting ceremony “sold out” (or were reserved online) within the first 20 minutes of registration opening. Additional creative, socially distanced programming — such as a citywide “gnome hunt,” patterned after a popular scarecrow-scavenger hunt this fall — is on tap with all the up-to-date bells and whistles, such as a custom mobile app.
Jennifer LaGraff, executive director of Four Mile Historic Park, is counting on the variance that her 12-acre park secured for events earlier this (and which is still valid) to offer Four Mile’s holiday programming, which runs Dec. 4-27. She feels a responsibility to stay open, considering that her park is a nonprofit, taxpayer-funded historical attraction.
“This is the first year we’re doing this,” she said of December Delights, Four Mile’s ticketed holiday celebration that includes a synthetic ice-skating rink, kids’ activities, food, drink and even video games and “life-sized holiday cards” from Oh Heck Yeah! founder and cultural programmer Brian Corrigan.
“Our house is the oldest standing structure in Denver and it’s tiny, so there’s no ideal way to sanitize the inside of it,” she said. “But it’s more than just wanting a piece of the holiday-event pie. Restaurants and events are doing a really great job, and I applaud them, but here you’re experiencing nature. We receive so much cultural funding that I feel it’s our responsibility to provide something safe, fun and holiday-related for people to do outdoors through the end of the year.”
Staff writer Josie Sexton contributed to this report.
This content was originally published here.