California allows live music to return, but how many venues reopen up in the air

The Chapel, Coronavirus, COVID-19

The Chapel, closed, on the afternoon of March 17, 2020, the first day of a shelter-in-place to combat coronavirus.

California health officials announced on Friday that indoor concerts, as well as other events, can resume on April 15. However, many don’t see the economic viability of doing so quite yet.

The California Department of Public Health announced new rules that allow concerts, theater and other indoor events at a limited capacity to attendees vaccinated or providing proof of a recent negative test. The allowed capacity depends on the venue’s size and the county’s color tier, ranging from 10 percent for small venues in the red tier to 35 percent in large venues at the orange tier, with less restrictive tiers going beyond even that.

But that doesn’t mean venues will open immediately. Many don’t see the economic benefit of spending the money required to reopen to sell a limited number of tickets.

“Very few small live music venues, and for that matter I think most entertainment businesses in S.F., can operate successfully at 50 percent. It’s just too expensive to open the doors,” said Kevin Arnold, founder of concert promoter Noise Pop. “Every venue has its own basic costs to open, and in the live music world, almost all those first 50 percent in dollars go to expenses and talent, and money doesn’t really get made until well past that point. When your breakeven point on a show is typically at 50 percent-plus of capacity, it’s clearly not worth it.”

In addition to the economic viability, others question the wisdom of opening so quickly while a fourth wave of coronavirus cases is taking hold in New York, Michigan and other parts of the East Coast and upper Midwest.

“I think it’s really bizarre how quickly things are opening up when we’ve been so careful thus far,” said Lynn Schwartz, co-owner of San Francisco club Bottom of the Hill. “It’s still really difficult to get a vaccination appointment, and I personally think it’s unwise to open venues now when we’re so close, like months, to that day when we reach herd immunity in the Bay Area. I think it’s a great estimate to think we could open by mid-to-late summer or early fall.”

However, Schwartz does think there will be venues that take advantage.

“Bottom of the Hill is the size where you just have to be comfortable with intimacy to attend, so we know we need to wait until we are out of danger of the ‘fourth wave’ to open,” she said. “Others have a bigger size so that 25 percent actually allows a significant amount of people through the doors, and they can still socially distance. I know others will definitely get the ball rolling, even with these difficult restrictions.”

Editor Roman Gokhman contributed to this report. Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at

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