Planning an event during a pandemic: thinking outside of a 12-by-12-foot box
When COVID-19 shut everything down, the event industry felt the shutdown deeply. Literally overnight, events were illegal, and any kind of gathering of over 10 people was strictly regulated. During this period of uncertainty and shutdown, RTD spent months planning a milestone event — the opening of our newest commuter rail line, the N Line — in parallel, putting pieces in place for both a fully virtual event as well as an in-person event. Approximately 45 days prior to the event, RTD committed to hosting it in person.
After six months of pandemic restrictions, RTD held a grand opening for the N Line on Sept. 21. Our schedule of events leading up to the grand opening ceremony included three separate preview train rides, for media, the RTD Board of Directors and N Line elected officials the week before the opening, as well as an inaugural train ride the morning of the grand opening. Following the grand opening ceremony, RTD provided our customers with a week's worth of free rides on the new line to help celebrate the opening. RTD ambassadors also provided outreach along the line to support our customers new to riding commuter rail.
Pandemic restrictions abounded. The Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE) had guidelines for planning a live event, which included limiting attendees to no more than 175 people, strictly invitation-only, cleaning and hygiene standards, face-covering requirements and specific social distancing guidelines requiring a 12-foot spacing grid for attendees at the outdoor event. To put this in context: An event with 175 people requires just over 24,000 square feet of space before you begin to account for tables, chairs and other event infrastructure. In RTD's case, the agency decided to limit the attendance to no more than 75 attendees. For our event, the seating alone required a space 84 feet deep by 120 feet wide.
In addition, RTD has its own pandemic guidelines to which we needed to adhere. Train capacities are limited to no more than 30 people per car, and face covering and physical distancing requirements are also in place. So, with all these restrictions, just how did RTD plan and implement the N Line grand opening?
Preview Train Rides
RTD offered preview train rides to the media, RTD Board of Directors and elected officials. These rides were designed to generate additional excitement about the opening and to provide a thank-you to RTD’s Board and local elected officials for their time and energy invested in the project.
The following steps were taken to address COVID-19 considerations:
- The quantity of invitations were limited.
- The number of RSVPs was limited.
- Rail car capacities needed to be followed, per RTD’s own operating guidelines, to allow no more than 30 people per car. For a commuter rail train consisting of a “married pair” of two rail cars, each ride has capacity for no more than 60 people.
- All guests were required to wear face coverings before entering the RTD event, including on the train platform and on RTD vehicles. RTD provided face coverings if any individual did not have one available.
- Waivers, assumptions of risk and guideline acknowledgements were included with the required online registration so everyone knew what was expected.
- All participants were required to read and acknowledge, via signature, the COVID Guidelines and Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Liability. These documents were collected from all participants on these rides.
- RTD staff performed symptom and temperature checks with all participants as they arrived to check in for their scheduled ride.
- All guests were required to maintain appropriate physical distance on RTD vehicles as well as on the platform while waiting to depart.
N Line Grand Opening
The grand opening ceremony celebrated the successful completion of this major milestone. The inaugural train ride was a “progressive” ride starting at Denver Union Station, picking up designated attendees at four stops along the line, and ultimately arriving at the end-of-line station where the grand opening ceremony was hosted.
All the same COVID-19 protocols used for the preview train rides were also in place for the grand opening, with a few additional ones:
- Only 93 people were invited to the live in-person event. All other invitees were sent an invitation to view a livestream of the event online.
- A limited quantity of RSVPs was allowed, so that attendance did not exceed 75 people.
- Waivers, assumptions of risk and guideline acknowledgements
- All participants were required to read and acknowledge, via signature, the COVID Guidelines and Assumption of Risk and Waiver of Liability. These were collected from all participants attending the event via an electronic RSVP form.
- Any invited participants who showed up without an RSVP were required to review, sign and acknowledge the waiver and assumption of risk, and complete a symptom and temperature check before being allowed into the venue.
- RTD did not accommodate any uninvited guests at this event.
- Face coverings
- Face coverings are required upon all RTD vehicles. Signage at each station reminded patrons of this requirement. RTD had face coverings available to the public should a patron need one to meet the requirement.
- Symptom and temperature checks
- RTD staff performed symptom and temperature checks with all invited participants as they arrived to check in for scheduled rides and the grand-opening ceremony.
- Physical distancing onboard commuter rail vehicles
- RTD placed temporary signage for the event to remind patrons of the physical distancing requirement while they were waiting on the platform or in line.
- Event layout
- RTD completed the event setup in alignment with CDPHE guidelines for outdoor events.
- A 12-foot grid was set with chairs for attendees as well as speakers. Seating for spectators started not less than 20 feet from the downstage edge of the stage. Each spectator had their own chair set on a 12-foot grid.
- The grand opening ceremony was cordoned off from the public to create separation from invited guests. One entrance and one exit were devised to create unidirectional flow through the event.
- All speakers were situated either stage left or stage right in a chair set on a 12-foot grid as well.
- Participants in the final ribbon cutting were staggered on stage and in front of the stage and offset to accomplish physical distancing.
- Vendors operating cameras and audio equipment were required to wear face coverings at all times. All vendors were encouraged to remain at least 6 feet away from each other, as best as possible, during setup, operations and strike.
RTD successfully executed these plans in addition to the event operations. The feedback in general was excellent. Those attending in person appreciated the opportunity to celebrate at a live event. Those who watched the livestream thought it was well done and produced.