As COVID Cases Decrease And Vaccinations Increase, Live Music, In-Person Events Begin Anew
With the return of spring weather and the arrival of large-scale vaccinations, we’re finally able to turn our attention to something we haven’t had in a while: live music, in small clubs, outdoor venues and at festivals.
There’s a lot of things for venue owners to be optimistic about right now, says Chris Zacher, owner of Denver’s Levitt Pavilion. After a year without shows, the venue is slated to open for the season on May 14.
This week, venues across the country can also finally begin applying for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant. The $16 billion federal program will provide relief for music venues that have been closed due to the pandemic.
“This program is really going to help people keep their businesses alive and get to that next step where they can start producing shows again,” said Zacher, who is also the co-captain for the Colorado branch of the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA.
“It was (signed into law) on Dec. 27, so we're three months down the road, and businesses have gone under during this time.”
That includes Denver’s famed jazz club El Chapultapec, which closed in December. The owner of the Mercury Cafe recently announced that the beloved venue is for sale.
“Right now we're kind of crawling,” Zacher said. “We're trying to get to the point where we can walk so that we can run later.”
That includes indoor venues — most of which have not been open until very recently.
Despite new efforts by the state to help businesses open their doors, indoor venues are still at a disadvantage, says Z2 Entertainment CEO Cheryl Liguori. Among its venues, Z2 operates the Fox Theatre, the Boulder Theater and the Aggie Theatre — the latter two of which have reopened for shows under area 5-Star and Level-Up certification programs.
The certifications allow venues that offer enhanced safety measures to open under increased capacity. However, it’s still limited, Liguori said, and likely will be for a while because of space constraints due to the 6-foot social distancing calculator for indoor venues.
And there will be other hurdles to getting indoor shows back on track.
“I think it's going to take a little while longer for people to feel comfortable coming into an indoor venue that is not restricted beyond your state restriction, your legal capacity,” Liguori said. “I think that's going to take a little bit of time for people to feel comfortable with that even after we have reached a certain level of vaccination and herd immunity, and I think masks are going to be with us for a little while.”
Both the Boulder Theater and the Aggie now feature what Liguori calls a “dinner theater-like” experience. Concert-goers are seated at tables, and rather than have people crowding at the bar, there is table service.
“I feel really great that we're able to bring people to work,” she said. “We're also able to pay artists.”
Right now, that’s primarily local acts — such as Gasoline Lollipops and singer-songwriter Daniel Rodriguez. Most big touring artists haven’t hit the road yet because the widely varying COVID regulations from state to state make it cost prohibitive, Liguori said. That’s led to Z2 booking a wider variety of artists, including jazz, classical and children’s acts.
“We're doing our best to make sure that we're presenting to the whole community,” she said. “We're trying to bring it back for everyone in a safe way.”
While outdoor venues have the advantage of space and open air, they also have a lot of hoops to jump through to maintain a safe environment for fans, artists and employees.
Shows at Bellvue’s Mishawaka Amphitheatre and Lyons’ Planet Bluegrass currently feature table or pod seating. They’ve even done a few “double features” and multi-day runs to accommodate particularly popular acts.
Red Rocks, which only had a few events last year for very limited capacities — 175 people in a venue that typically seats nearly 10,000 — will host shows of up to 2,500 to beginning this month.
Those numbers will likely increase as the season goes on. Venues have been working with the state of Colorado on projections into the summer and early fall because while Gov. Polis can announce color changes on the COVID dial within a week, scheduling a concert season requires a lot more advanced planning. Zacher says Colorado is actually leading the way in improving how states work with venues.
“What we had to do was go to our state legislators and say, ‘Look, this is how the industry operates. We need somewhere between three and 12 months to book a show depending on the artist, and we also need other markets to open,’” he said. “But if you wait to tell me what you think the guidelines are going to be a week before they're going to change, you've taken away our lead up and we're not going to be able to produce any events because it's too difficult at that point in time to book an artist, get routing done, put the tickets on sale, all of that.”
Because of its size, Levitt will open with a capacity of about 3,300, Zacher said. And if the state’s projections hold, the venue expects to host about 80 ticketed and free events this season using a pod system.
Zacher says he expects each venue’s system will take some time to work out. Regardless, concert goers will likely need to get to the venue a little earlier than usual to allow time to get in, give contact tracing information and get to their pods.
At Levitt, there will be “COVID concierges” to help and to make sure people are following the rules, including wearing masks when they are outside of their pod. While the venue will accept cash, Zacher said he expects cards to remain the preferred method for paying for food and beverages for a while.
Asked if he thought options like “vaccination passports” for admission to shows could be coming, Zacher said he doubted it. The logistics alone would add another potential $20 to $25 to the price of a ticket. That’s a cost he says neither fans nor promoters are likely willing to pay.
Zacher said the idea reminds him of a company that has been marketing shipping containers turned into entry points for venues.
“The entry points feature bays where people can step in and it scans your ticket, takes your temperature and does a full weapons body scan,” he said. “The problem is, it's incredibly expensive, like cost-prohibitively expensive. You're talking a million dollars a year to utilize this thing.”
If there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it may be that it pushes the health and tech community to work on solutions now rather than waiting for the next event, when implementing new methods is too costly.
One group that likely isn’t going to bounce back as easily this spring and summer are free, outdoor festivals. It seems counterintuitive because it's outside and therefore “safer,” but those in the industry say it’s harder to cap attendance or offer contact tracing as easily as with indoor or ticketed events.
Organizers for several of Colorado’s big summer festivals contacted for this story said it’s too early to say for sure whether they’ll be able to host events or not. Last week, officials with the Cherry Creek Arts Festival announced they are postponing the event, which usually takes place over the Fourth of July holiday, to Labor Day weekend. They’re also moving it to just outside the Cherry Creek Shopping Center so they can add fencing, which will allow for gated entrances and contact tracing for attendees.
Nederland’s beloved Frozen Dead Guy Days festival was one of the first Colorado events to be canceled when the pandemic began. Festival tents and stages were all set up and ready to go when the town council shut things down less than 24 hours before the event was to begin. Event co-owners Sarah Martin and Amanda MacDonald canceled the 2021 event themselves, saying they just couldn’t make it work safely.
“We don't want to be the first; we want to be the safest,” Martin said. “We don't want to (be the cause of) anybody dying because we're celebrating someone that's already dead. We want to be able to have people celebrate the reverence of life and the irreverence of the hereafter, and we don't want to escort anybody to the door.”
Martin, who’s done event planning for events ranging from concerts to presidential inaugurations, said she hopes they can host a smaller version of the event later this summer but expects events to look very differently for a while — from ticketing to concessions.
“I think that that's going to be a challenge for every event and every place at this point,” she said. “I mean, bathrooms will be interesting — bands, band safety, band check-in, band check-out. There might be a lot of time in between just to clean everything off and put condoms on microphones and wipe everything down. Craft services will be very challenging, making sure that that's all safe. And our vendors are going to be at a different level of how food is given out to people and prepared and lines. I mean, it's a whole thing.”
As a zero-waste event, even dealing with cups and water bottles will be a challenge, Martin said.
Despite all these issues, venue owners and event operators said they just want to be able to open in whatever format they can. Still, there is an unease about getting too optimistic, Zacher said.
“The difficult part is if you look back over the past 12 months and match it up with areas where good news was coming about bars or restaurants reopening or starting to reopen, not too far after that, we would start to see spikes,” he said. “We have to remind people that when we talk about things opening up in May, June, July or August, there's still a pandemic here and there's still high hospitalizations and we still have a low number who have gotten fully vaccinated.
“So when we … talk about these shows that we're talking about down the road, we're not talking about today. And everybody between now and the time that first show happens has to remember to still be responsible to the rules that exist now, still wear your mask, still wash your hands, still make sure that you're doing everything you can so that everything we're talking to you about can happen.”