DENVER — Beginning on Sunday, the Broncos will welcome fans back to Empower Field at Mile High.
Capacity will be limited to just 5,700 fans — about 7.5 percent of the stadium's 76,000 seats — and the overall process of entering the stadium and experiencing a game will be very different.
To walk fans through these changes, Empower Field at Mile High General Manager Jay Roberts and Director of Event Operations Jon Applegate conducted an extensive overview on Tuesday.
"The biggest thing is we're excited to welcome back our fans," Applegate said. "It's been a lot of work during the offseason the past several months — a huge credit to all of our staff here at the stadium to make this preparation a reality — and we're excited to have fans back here on Sunday."
And though the challenges have changed for Applegate, Roberts and the Broncos, the goals really haven't.
"It comes down to a safe and happy crowd," Roberts said. "I want everybody to be safe, and that's pre-COVID [too]. I want people to come in, enjoy the game, have very few customer service complaints and go home and talk about how it was a great experience, whether that's a kid who came to his first game and got to be in the big stadium or somebody who comes every week with their son or daughter and enjoys some sort of tradition. It's the same thing. I'm hoping we get 5,700 people that can come and renew the tradition that they've been doing for the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years."
To do this, the Broncos and Empower Field at Mile High have implemented numerous changes to stadium guidelines, entry protocols and much more.
"We wouldn't have invited fans to the stadium if we didn't think it was going to be perfectly safe," Roberts said. "… We put together an extensive plan that outlines how we can get fans in and to their seats in a socially distanced and safe manner."
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One of the biggest changes to the atmosphere at Broncos games will be the lack of tailgating. To minimize chances of fans circulating with other fans and lingering, which could carry a risk of spreading disease, tailgating will not be allowed this season.
"We did notify fans earlier this year that we wouldn't allow tailgating," Applegate said. "It was obviously something we did because we were unable to keep fans from congregating. So we're asking fans to arrive at the stadium, park their vehicle and walk in. The one benefit is we're able to park all fans, while we're in a limited capacity scenario, on-site. And traffic is expected to be much less than we normally see."
Instead, fans will be expected to proceed toward the stadium. Extra time should be allowed for the entry process with the new protocols.
But even before fans get in the stadium, they will have to pull on their face covering.
"As you're approaching the stadium, you will be required to put your mask on and wear your mask while in the building except when actively eating and drinking," Applegate said.
Unlike a game in previous years where fans could enter the stadium at just about any gate, ticket-holders will be assigned an entry gate, which will be noted on their digital ticket.
The Broncos use digital mobile ticketing, so fans' tickets will still be found in the Broncos 365 app in the Account Manager section. Staff will then scan the bar code on the tickets on fans' cell phones.
"We've tried to make the experience as touchless and as frictionless as possible when you enter the building," Roberts said. "… You enter the building at the gate closest to your seats, which is on your ticket. There are concession stands and bathrooms near every single section around the building. That means you don't have to travel far to get to whatever it is you need. But the goal is you come into this stadium, very frictionless, we've got so many turnstiles and metal detectors open that there will never be big lines."
There still are security processes in place, the most notable of which is the clear bag policy.
"The clear bag policy will remain in effect [but] we've changed the way we're doing things," Applegate said. "We're actually asking fans to keep the contents that they're bringing — their hat, their glasses, their keys, their cell phone — in their clear bag and walk through the metal detector. The only thing we'd ask you to remove prior to entering is any large metal objects — whether an umbrella [or] binoculars — or any baggy clothing. Ultimately, we just need to see what's in the contents. But that is a big change that we feel will expedite the process."
The aim is to maintain an easy and secure entry into the stadium while avoiding unnecessary contact between people.
MOVING THROUGH THE STADIUM
Most fans will probably be able to find their section and their seats quickly after entering on the 100 level. Fans with seats not on the 100 level will be directed to use escalators, which now have UVC lights to disinfect handrails.
"We are going to be minimizing the use of elevators," Roberts said. "That is one of the things that's more enclosed in a stadium, so we're really going to minimize the amount of people who can use the elevator. So we're going to ensure everybody uses escalators. So pushing everybody on escalators, the handrail is something that everybody touches. It's a little hard to clean. So we installed UVC under-escalator disinfecting lights that will help kill bacteria and virus and things that are on those handrails."
In addition to that upgrade, the stadium also implemented new bipolar ionization technology.
"We also installed bipolar ionization in all of the places that are in enclosed spaces — suites, clubs, restrooms all have bipolar ionization," Roberts said. "… A lot of newer arenas have already installed it because it helps reduce allergens and helps minimize contaminants in the air. Our engineers really were excited about what it would do for bacteria and viruses. So we've installed that in all of our enclosed spaces."
But even with these many technological investments, there will still be a required level of person-to-person conduct to help mitigate any chance of spreading disease.
"There's always a level of personal responsibility," Roberts said. "We can't keep everybody 100 percent safe. We are doing a ton to keep everybody safe, but we can't be 100 percent safe. So everybody has to take some personal responsibility. But we will have roam teams in the concourses that will make sure we don't have large gatherings. … We have removed all of the congregation areas within the stadium. Mountain Village, where people usually hang out at drink rails, those will be closed. We've turned off the TVs in those areas so they can't go watch the game there. The Tavern, which is a traditional hangout area, is not open for the season. So those areas that we do usually get congregation are closed."
FINDING YOUR SEAT OR SEATING POD
Ticketing this year will be organized into seating pods of between one to six people. By separating groups this way, the stadium can help ensure that groups are not co-mingling once they get into the stands.
"The pod of seating is your trusted group," Roberts said. "So if I come to the game with my family, that's my trusted group. I'm sitting in a pod of anywhere between one and six people. That pod, the last person in the seating row has to be at least six feet away from the start of the next pod. And you'll see that in seats, we've actually banded all the seats that aren't used so somebody can't move from seat to seat.
"That's one of the things that the state was really concerned about, is people moving and meeting each other and spreading the virus that direction. So we've made a concerted effort by actually banding about 60,000 seats so people can't go seat to seat. Our ushers have a way of knowing who is supposed to be sitting where so people who are in areas that they're not supposed to be, they'll go and put them back where they're supposed to be. The sections are all seated in less than 175 in a proper social distanced manner. But our ushers will be concerned about ensuring that people aren't going seat to seat or suite to suite. Normally people can go visit in other suites, and we won't be allowing suite-to-suite visiting because we don't want those groups to be transferred."
CONCESSIONS AND RESTROOMS
Concessions and restrooms will be available near every section so that people don't have to wander looking for their necessities.
"The premise is we have concession stands and bathrooms near every exit," Roberts said. "… So the fans are welcome to come in and out of the stadium bowl and go use the bathrooms, get concessions and come back. We don't want them to hang out in the concourse, and we'll push them back into the seating section. We want their main base to be in their seating pods, socially distanced, outside [and] six feet from anybody else. But yes, they can go get concessions and we've made sure that all of the requirements in each area are met. Every quadrant of the building will have gluten-free [options] and will have vegetarian [options] and will have hot dogs and all the basics so you don't have to go searching throughout the stadium to get some of the things you might want."
But even more than just making food stands available, Roberts said Aramark will open many more than they normally would for a crowd of this size. That way, there should be little to no lines to avoid crowding on the concourse.
"Concession stand-wise, Aramark is opening up stands all around the building," Roberts said. "Normally for a crowd of 5,700, which we'll have on Sunday — hopefully cheering [for] a win against Tampa — we would have about a fourth as many concession stands open. But we don't want lines. We want at most one or two sets of fans in line. So we've opened up a ton of concession points of sale and a ton of stands, so that there will not be large lines anywhere in the stadium. … Aramark did a lot of research, talked to the people at some of the stadiums of people who have had games already, and our point of sale ratio is better than Kansas City and Jacksonville and the people who have already had games to ensure that we don't have lines at the concession stands. So it's a real touchless experience."
Stands will accept debit/credit cards and Apple Pay, but cash will not be accepted this year, though the stadium will provide alternatives for fans who do not have debit/credit cards or Apple Pay.
"That's one of the dirtiest things in a stadium, the cash that transfers hands, especially for the staff that has to count it and count it out and transfer it," Roberts said. "So we're going cashless. Most people have credit cards or debit cards or what have you. For those people who don't have access to a credit card — there are some fans that don't want to use a credit card — that's fine. We will have reverse ATMs installed by Sunday. What that means is you can put your $20 in it and it will spit out a debit card with $20 that you can use here or you could use at a 7-11 or some store somewhere else."
Roberts also noted that there will be some stands where cards can be scanned upon entering a store so that customers are automatically charged with what they take when they leave with those items. The stadium also has stores where items are scanned at the point of sale by a Mashgin unit with no clerk required.
MASK WEARING A MUST
From the moment fans step onto the stadium premises, they will be required to wear a mask or face covering to abide by the Fan Health Promise.
The only times fans may be permitted to remove their mask is when they are actively eating or drinking.
"We will continuously tell people to put their mask on when they're not actively eating," Roberts said. "So if you've got your food in front of you but you're not eating, your mask should be on. When you're getting ready to take a bit of your hot dog, that's when you go ahead and take your mask down and you take a bite of your hot dog and they you put it back up.
"If that happens, we're going to have to address that person and say, 'Hey, if you continue that activity, that's a problem,' and it could eventually lead to kicking them out of the building for not following the rules of the stadium — just like any other rules, like if somebody's swearing or smoking or doing any of those things. It will be very similar to our fan code of conduct requirements, that you have to follow the fan code of conduct. The masks and social distancing is now in our fan code of conduct. So those will be required to be followed in order to stay in the stadium."
Ultimately, though, Roberts said he expects the fan experience at the stadium to be not unlike what people may expect going to stores or other places right now as retailers look to provide customers with safe experiences.
"I think it is very similar to other experiences," Roberts said. "I think people are going to feel really safe. The small amount of crowd that we had on Monday night felt really safe; the general feeling was that they felt safer than going to the grocery store or some other place. The biggest difference between going to a restaurant and coming to a stadium is what we're requiring is you're wearing that mask even in the seating bowl in the pod, whereas if you go to a restaurant, you pretty much, most people take their mask off the whole time they're dining. And that's not the scenario here. What we're looking for is you wear it the whole time except that active eating or drinking, and that's the difference. So that will be a change."