The biggest question at the top of the minds of music fans, artists, club owners and the rest of the music industry is when concerts can resume. The answer is complicated because in many circumstances, it will come down to individual states—or even to the local municipality level.
Arkansas is primed to become the first state to announce that large indoor entertainment venues can reopen on May 18, granted that they keep attendance to no more than 50 people, unless otherwise approved by the state. In California, however, Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he can’t see the possibility of “large gatherings like concerts” being allowed through the end of the summer. He’s laid out a four-phase plan to reopen California, and included concerts in the final phase, following the widespread availability of a vaccine. Movie theaters are included in the third phase, which has some owners of smaller clubs wondering if they, too, can be part of the third phase.
This week, the national Event Safety Alliance released a 29-page guide for entertainment venues that has provided the most detailed look yet into what concerts following the reopening of the economy will look like, with suggestions about line management, entry and exit from venues, sanitization and health checks. But the organization wants to make it clear that the recommendations are a guide for how concert halls should reopen—and not when.
“We would like science to influence how quickly the states allow venues to reopen,” said attorney Steven A. Adelman, the organization’s vice president. “We’re not wild-eyed optimists.”
The nonprofit ESA, which is based in Ohio and formed following the August 2011 Indiana State Fair roof collapse, includes hundreds of members in event planning, promotion, production and performance in music, sports and corporate events, as well as security, law, insurance, meteorology and health care workers. Its website states that it advocates “life safety first in all phases of event production and activation.”
“What we do is identify the reasonably foreseeable risks of opening a public entertainment accommodation during a global pandemic … and we identify a series of reasonable risk mitigation measures which a venue can consider as part of the solution for themselves,” Adelman said.
The recommendations that have made the most waves nationwide since the guidelines were issued affect the front of the stage, where ESA says unmonitored congregating should no longer be allowed. ESA also recommends that moshing and crowdsurfing also not be allowed until a vaccine is widely available. General admission concerts with highly prized front barricade spots, however, are not out of the question.
“People can’t be allowed to just run through the lobby, across the floor and hang on the barricade. That scenario cannot happen anymore—not during a global pandemic,” Adelman said. “But we know how to solve that problem. We know what pens are because we use them already. We just currently use the idea of corrals either for VIPs or for ADA accessibility issues. The idea is exactly the same. We know how to separate people into smaller groups based on our motivation to do so.”
The document doesn’t contain one-size-fits-all best practices because all venues will face unique challenges and factors, including the physical space, size of the event and geographic location. Instead, Adelman said, ESA listed as many issues that would conceivably come up for all venues as possible, as well as their mitigation options.
Among the recommendations:
- At parking lots, there should be spaces between cars.
- Concert halls will need additional space to accommodate longer but less densely packed lines waiting to enter, but people will still need to steer clear of traffic and there will need to be easy access for other pedestrians to walk by. The nonprofit recommends virtual queuing, through which arrival can be staggered to minimize lines for wanding, bag check, and ticket scanning.
- Will-call and box office areas should be separated from concertgoers with a clear shield; and where that’s not possible, fewer windows should be opened to provide distancing.
- In the event that concerts require masks or gloves for concertgoers, venues should have them available for purchase.
- All concertgoers and workers will need to have their temperature taken before entering.
- Each venue should have an “infection communication coordinator” available to communicate with the public and event producer, and ensure policies are being followed, as well as make the call about whether a worker or concertgoer can enter an event in the event of a dispute.
- Venues need to have hand-washing stations placed right past the security and health checkpoints.
- All workers, including contractors, need to wear masks and gloves, and wash their hands at least once an hour where possible. They will need to notify supervisors right way of symptoms of COVID-19 that are not explained by an underlying condition, and must not go in to work if they have those symptoms. They will need to isolate for at least 14 days before returning to work.
- All “high-touch” areas will need to be routinely sanitized numerous times during an event. This includes all public areas, food service areas, production areas and artist green rooms—as well as instruments, cables and other stage equipment.
- Merch tables will also have to deal with longer, distanced lines. Workers selling merchandise should know the risk of many people touching their products, according to the report. One way to decrease the risk in this situation is to allow concertgoers to purchase shirts and records online in advance to pick up their purchases on-site. The lines for merch should also be separated from other foot traffic, and monitored.
- Restroom occupancies will likely need to also be decreased. But this will have the side effect of increasing lines of people waiting to get in, in which social distancing will also need to be maintained.
- Following concerts, exiting will need to be more orderly than most people are used to—”the same way passengers exit an airplane at the end of their flight,” the guidelines state—with those in the rear being led out first.
- Then there’s the matter of intermissions, or when people might have a need to exit a concert hall for any reason. Intermission periods may need to be longer than in the past. “Given these issues, including how to let some people out of a row while others remain seated, the path of least resistance may simply be shorter shows with no intermission,” according to the report.
The guidelines state that if smaller venues are able to open without increasing COVID-19 transmission rates, it will open the door for larger spaces to implement similar measures on a larger scale. But it warns that an early failure can set the entire live event industry back.
The biggest challenge from the public will come from those who refuse to go along with the new health measures. The guidelines recommend various forms of education to deal with that.
“At this early moment, there is as much resistance to face coverings and social distancing as there was to bag checks and magnetometers in the United States after 9/11,” the report states. “We got used to them, and most people came to accept that they were for our own safety. A cultural change is necessary again.”
For many owners of concert halls nationwide like Noise Pop CEO Kevin Arnold, the ESA guidelines are the first direction they’ve received for reopening—something for which they’ve been waiting for weeks.
“We see these as important data points and suggestions,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, spokeswoman for the National Independent Venue Association and communications director for the 9:30 Club, The Anthem and Merriweather Post Pavilion on the East Coast.
“Every venue is different, but you can take the learnings of these suggestions and apply it to your venue,” she said. “The people who operate venues will have to take learnings from all sorts of sources and apply it to their place. … We want to reopen, but we want to reopen safely. The people coming through our doors; we think of as family. They’re our employees. They’re our fans. It’s the artists.”
Venue operators will also need to seek out guidance from their local governments and health departments, and of course, venues will need to wait until a local, regional or statewide authority is granted to reopen, which will need before enacting any mitigation procedures.
“None of this even comes into play until a governor blows the starter’s whistle,” Adelman said. “It is a fine thing to have a governor say … ‘Let’s get things open.’ But it’s a completely separate thing for the event professionals to say … ‘Now that we can, how do we do it?'”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office declined to comment on the ESA guidelines, instead directing RIFF to stages 3 and 4 of Newsom’s “Resilience Roadmap.” Stage 3 allows higher risk environments to open with adaptations and limits on size of gatherings. This includes entertainment venues like movie theaters and sports without live audiences. Stage 4 allows re-opening of highest risk workplaces with all indicators satisfied once treatments have been developed. This includes concerts, convention centers and sports with live audiences.
“More specific guidance will be forthcoming as we get closer to commencing Stages 3 and 4,” California Department of Public Health spokesman Dale Schornack said in an email.
Adelman said elected officials should include entertainment industry experts in their decision-making processes in regard to reopening entertainment venues. ESA is looking to help governors’ offices nationwide.
“These are hard questions, and, respectfully to our elected officials, they’re not subject matter experts in the live event industry. But we are, and we would love to be of assistance,” he said.
Once venues receive permission to reopen, it will be up to each one to determine what’s possible. ESA doesn’t expect for each venue to enact all of its mitigation strategies, but hopes that venues take all of them into account before proceeding. Even if all of the strategies were possible, no venue can guarantee that COVID-19 won’t spread because there are many asymptomatic carriers who will attend.
“This is a pandemic with inadequate testing, no contact tracing and no vaccine on the horizon,” he said. “Any given venue probably couldn’t do all the things we suggest. We don’t intend for that to be the recipe someone has to follow. … It would be smart for them to consider all the things we suggest because those suggestions are intended to get people to think.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.