Michael Dorf founded his first music venue, the Knitting Factory, in New York City in 1986. In the years since, his business has weathered all kinds of calamities. “We were probably the closest venue to the World Trade Center area back in 2001,” Dorf says. “I’ve been open during blackouts and hurricanes. We’ve been through other international virus concerns.” But the latest, the growing global outbreak of COVID-19, “has a whole different intensity and uncertainty to it,” he acknowledges. “It’s unclear how far it can spiral out.”
Venue owners like Dorf around the country are facing a tough choice: Staying open and hosting events is often necessary for survival, especially for small operations, but public gatherings may also contribute to the spread of COVID-19. Several major live events have already been cancelled due to concern about the virus — South by Southwest, Ultra Music Festival — while Coachella and Stagecoach moved from April to October. At least one county in California banned large gatherings of any sort this week, as did three counties in Washington State (encompassing Seattle) and the city of San Francisco, clearing the way for more localities to do the same.
“We’re all trying to make the best decisions under very difficult, uncertain circumstances,” says Steven Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance. “There are no good answers, just hard questions. There’s a lot at stake for people’s health, as well financially [for these venues].”
The members of the live music ecosystem who spoke for this story say they are trying to, as Dorf puts it, “find the strength to remain open while balancing that with safety concerns.” “Until you get a mandate from people who are supposedly in the know, our public officials, you have to move forward,” adds Kevin Lyman, founder of the Warped Tour and an associate professor in the music industry program at the University of Southern California.
But move forward with care: Lyman had extra hand sanitizer available at a public roundtable discussion about mental health that took place on the USC campus on Monday. “The things that venue operators can do are pretty limited and pretty simple,” Adelman notes. “Wash your hands, use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, sneeze into your arm, not the person next to you — stuff we learned as little kids when we first went to school.”
There are a few other strategies available. “We’ve doubled our cleaning crews, hitting all areas of high contact twice as frequently,” says Jimi Byron, who oversees booking for the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon. (“Disinfectants should be approved by the E.P.A. for [tackling] emerging viral pathogens,” notes Connor Fitzpatrick, who serves as executive director at CrowdRX, an EMS service that helps festivals.) “Security guards are wearing gloves,” Byron continues, and scanning all tickets rather than tearing them to minimize interpersonal contact.
Even basic signage “with an eye towards illness prevention and cleanliness” can be helpful, according to Michael Downing, chief security officer at Oak View Group, an advisory board for concert venues. “We have to do our best to get the factual perspective into people’s hands,” he says. “I think there is some disinformation out there that needs to be managed.”
In addition, venue owners are gently encouraging any concert-goers feeling unwell to stay home without losing the money they threw down on a ticket. “I work with the ticketing team and make sure that anybody who wants a refund can get a refund,” Byron says.
A more sophisticated version of this approach is available for those who can afford it. “Some of our venues are asking for thermal screening at the gates, where people walk by a device that signals us if their temperature is above a threshold,” explains Dr. Andrew Bazos of CrowdRX. “They get pulled out for a screening to determine where they’ve been, what other symptoms they might have.”
Aside from this, though, the options available to the majority of venues aren’t much different than those available to the average commuter in any major city. The issue, Adelman points out, “is not that events can’t supply enough soap and water, it’s that they can’t provide six feet of personal distance between any individual and the person nearest them [to prevent a potential contagion from spreading].”
Dorf, who now oversees City Winery, which he founded in New York in 2008 and has grown to include four locations, agrees. “We’re not a business where you can teleconference it in,” he says.
No acts have cancelled planned shows at City Winery yet. Dorf is proceeding tentatively, noting that New York governor Andrew Cuomo ordered the National Guard to set up a “containment area” in New Rochelle, where there are a number of COVID-19 cases, on Tuesday. At a certain point, a venue’s choice to proceed may no longer be its own.
That now appears to be the case in San Francisco: On Wednesday, the city banned “non-essential group events” — “any congregation of 50 or more people for any social, cultural, entertainment, or other special event or other non-essential purpose where people are not separated by physical space of at least four feet (which is slightly longer than an average arm’s length)” — for two weeks, according to NBC Bay Area. A city health officer noted that the decision was made “on the basis of scientific evidence and best practices as currently known and available to protect vulnerable members of the public from avoidable risk of serious illness.”
In Oregon, less than 20 COVID-19 cases have been reported. “We haven’t seen a major impact on ticket sales, but we’re starting to see it a little bit,” says Nicholas Harris, a talent buyer for several festivals. “And it depends on the audience that’s coming to shows — the section of the public that at this point is deemed higher risk, we’re seeing those people be extra careful, which is understandable.”
Even in the lucky states where there are relatively few confirmed cases of COVID-19, there is still a worry that a growing number of major festival cancellations could lead to a downturn in the live music scene. “In a consolidated industry that’s not properly balanced, these types of festivals going away impacts the routing of entire lineups,” Harris explains. “There is a real risk to a domino effect if large festivals go away and those provide the anchor dates for a lot of these tours — then maybe club dates can’t happen.”
But many are, at least for now. On Monday, Dorf sent a message to everyone on the City Winery’s email list to keep them apprised of the heightened precautions. He also announced his intention to keep hosting performances. “We feel the responsibility as part of a society to continue to present culture to meet our human needs, albeit in the most healthy and sanitary way,” Dorf wrote. “… In the words of Thoreau: ‘When I hear music, I fear no danger.'”