The Show Must Go On… Eventually

San Francisco has given the green light to indoor performances, but it will likely be months before you see any shows.

On April 8 at 9 a.m., Amy Morris Gibbs, general manager of the Makeout Room and Latin American Club, was one of thousands of venue managers across America hoping to win the lottery. That date and time was when the federal government promised — a mere 12 hours earlier — to open up the portal for the Small Venue Operator Grant (SVOG), a $16 billion chunk of the second stimulus package from December that would be doled out to performing arts venues, movie theaters, and small museums on a first-come, first-serve basis. 

Naturally, with virtually every venue operator in America logging on at the same time, there were technical difficulties. “The site just crashed,” Morris Gibbs says. “No applications were received that day.”

Instead of a handful of grant winners, everybody lost. 

Later that day, Mayor London Breed announced that indoor entertainment venues would be allowed to reopen on April 15. After more than a year of hardship and frustration, the announcement should have come as welcome news to San Francisco’s club and venue managers. But in reality, for most venues, this latest phase is just a tantalizing prelude, the first in a series of opening acts trying to kill time for a headliner who is disastrously late. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to open with limited capacity, because our business model doesn’t have really fat margins,” Morris Gibbs says.  

The current regulations governing indoor events are so onerous that few, if any, small venues will be able to take advantage of them. Even June 15, the tentative date that Gov. Gavin Newsom has given for full reopening, won’t mean much to small venues or even many large ones.

Live performance will be one of the final hurdles in our long-awaited return to normal. By the time concerts, plays, ballet, and stand-up comedy can safely resume at a significant scale, the rest of society will have to be largely up and running. Which means that when venues do reopen in earnest — in August and September, knock on wood — it will be a clear sign that the pandemic, at least in its current, acute form, is over and done. 

Rock on, man. Rock on.

August & Everything After

The current rules that technically allow indoor events and performances to resume are certainly a step in the right direction, venue managers say. But the main beneficiaries of the latest guidelines, at least in the near term, will be the Warriors and the Chase Center. 

The rules allow entertainment venues to host up to 35 percent of their capacity with an approved health plan from the city — and provided that all attendees present proof of vaccination or a negative test at the door. Attendees must remain in their assigned seats, and be at least six feet from their closest neighbor. These policies will allow the Warriors to host up to 6,500 fans for their final nine home games, and maybe more if they make the playoffs. Phish is currently scheduled to perform at Chase Center on July 24 and 25, and several more acts — including Celine Dion and Tame Impala — are slated to play the arena in August. 

Venues without the bandwidth to check everyone’s testing or vaccination status can still put on shows, but they must cap attendance at 15 percent capacity or 200 attendees, whichever is fewer. For venues like The Makeout Room (capacity 129) and Bottom of the Hill (capacity 244) those numbers just don’t add up.

The Animal Liberation Orchestra and Leftover Salmon rocked the Warfield on March 7, 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down in San Francisco.  Photo by Christopher Victorio

“We are not planning to take advantage of the upcoming loosening of restrictions in the slightest,” Lynn Schwarz, manager of the Bottom of the Hill and the president of the Independent Venue Association, wrote in an email. “Opening on such a small scale would definitely send us even farther into the red.”  

Even the larger DNA Lounge, whose main stage hall can host up to 800 people in normal times, is holding off for now. “The current restrictions on capacity make it financially non-viable to do indoor events,” manager Devon Dossett wrote in an email. Same goes for some of the Bay Area’s biggest concert venues. “Concerts are not economically feasible at limited capacities in most venues,” Sarah Fink Dempsey, a spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, which manages Bill Graham, the Independent, Berkeley’s Greek Theater, and other large venues as well as the Outside Lands festival, slated for Halloween weekend this year, said in a statement. “Until it is safe to gather with minimal restrictions across the United States, most artists will not be able to schedule full touring plans.” 

That’s because most bands aren’t going to book a cross-country tour unless they can maximize their return on the investment. And until enough bands are back on the circuit, venues simply won’t have a deep enough calendar to justify spending time and money booking performers, preparing their spaces, and restaffing.

“Until tours are back in full swing, there would not be enough business to make it worthwhile for us to come out of hibernation or for our staff to go off unemployment,” Schwarz wrote. “Tours do not happen quickly.”

Schwarz was one of several venue managers to tell me that she hasn’t been able to book any acts before August. Most likely, there won’t be many live, indoor performances until September. 

“September really feels like a magic month,” says Mickey Darius, manager of The Lost Church, and a booker for several bands. “If we’re not ready in September, then we really fucked up somewhere. If shows aren’t happening at full capacity in September, then we have much bigger problems.”

In the Meantime

Between now and late summer, venues are going to do what they’ve been doing for the past 13 months: Try to survive by any means possible. 

A lot of that work will entail applying for grants. “The paperwork and the intensity of everything has been quite stressful,” says Morris Gibbs, who serves as treasurer of the IVA in addition to her role as general manager of the Makeout Room and Latin American Club. “I haven’t been paid for a year, but I’m continuing to do all the paperwork.”

The SVOG — the federal grant that was supposed to open up on April 8 — is particularly stressful. Morris Gibbs had to fill out 52 pages of paperwork, and one mistake could doom the entire application. The grant could be very helpful: It provides each lucky venue with 45 percent of gross revenue from 2019. But as a first-come, first-serve grant, there’s no guarantee the neediest venues will receive it. Many small venue managers likely won’t have the time or savvy to fill out the application properly. Plus, with a limited pot of money, it’s possible that the big players (whose revenue used to be in the millions) could hoover up the vast majority of the funds. The grant also “pits us against each other,” Morris Gibbs says of fellow venues, “which is really unfortunate.”

It’ll be a while before we can gather like this again at the Warfield. Photo by Christopher Victorio

The portal for the SVOG is expected to open up again sometime this week, according to a press release from the Small Business Association. The SBA claims they have fixed the technical problems that had led to the grant portal’s crash. 

San Francisco has a $3 million shuttered venue grant program that’s meant to level the playing field. Grants will be at a flat, minimum rate of $10,000 for all venues, and could be higher depending on how many venues apply. Applications will open up on April 21 and close on May 5. Lynn Schwarz, who helped design the program, promises that applications will be “short and sweet.” Information on how to apply can be found by visiting the city government website.

So far, however, the process for receiving aid has been painfully slow, as the SVOG saga highlighted. “While we have been promised help from every level of government, most venues still haven’t received a dime of grant money, on a federal, state, or local level,” Schwarz says. 

“It’s all about funding at this point. If we’re not funded properly I don’t know how we’re going to open,” says Zander Andreas, manager of the Boom Boom Room. “With venues it’s different than just a bar. Our whole machinery has been taken apart by the shutdown.” In addition to government grants, Zander is hoping Boom Boom Room’s GoFundMe will help bring the venue back to life. The more money they can raise there, he says, the sooner they can open. 

Some venues and clubs are gradually coming back to life by taking advantage of their outdoor space. El Rio’s patio has been open since April 1, and the Mission District bar is bringing back more of its regular events in the coming weeks, including Per Sia and Yves Saint Croissant drag performances, and the Hard French dance party. For the foreseeable future, all of El Rio’s events will take place exclusively outside, manager Lynne Angel says. 

The Makeout Room is targeting a mid-May reopening, taking advantage of its under-construction parklet and the 25 percent capacity limit for indoor bars. “We’re trying to kind of act like a bar until things can ease back into normalcy,” Morris Gibbs says. “We think maybe a gradual opening with some outside seating and a DJ, and people coming in and out will make people more relaxed.” 

Over at The Lost Church, manager Mickey Darius thinks he might host some small-scale private events in the summer before opening things up for real in the fall. “We might do a few things, just kind of more for a feelgood factor, and really to just let our community know that we’re there,” he says. “And, on a safety level, start figuring out what works.” 

Hesitancy & Solidarity

Over the course of the last year, as social distancing and masks failed to stop infection surges, many placed hope in the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine. But even with shots open to everyone over 16, coming to a consensus on what makes a venue truly safe is proving difficult.

“I’m finding that there’s a lot more issues around vaccinations than I ever thought,” Darius says, explaining that contending with differing levels of comfort and divergent views on vaccines in fans and performers alike poses a serious challenge.

Some seasoned bands with dedicated fans are so excited to get back onstage they’re no longer insisting on a guarantee from venues, and are instead willing to take a percentage of door sales, which is typically something only up-and-coming groups agree to. Others are “very wary and hesitant about getting back into that wide exposure world,” and still others are of the “anti-vax” persuasion. 

Darius is also concerned about how and whether to enforce vaccination requirements for spectators. “I would be very thankful if there was more guidance or structure put in place from the city or state [on vaccine requirements], so that venues and promoters and individuals aren’t having to make these decisions,” he says. 

So far, trade groups like the Independent Venue Alliance have helped small venues navigate the challenges that have arisen this year. The IVA “has been a great communication hub for us,” says Morris Gibbs. “We have bi-weekly calls to discuss issues and what everybody’s going through, and it was a great resource when the shuttered venue grant platform crashed.” In addition, “good samaritan” IVA members who are up on the latest regulations have done pre-inspections at other venues to make sure they’re ready for reopening. 

Venue owners are being extra-cautious, both out of concern for their customers and to stave off another shutdown. “We certainly don’t want to close again. To open and close, that would be a disaster,” Morris Gibbs says. 

… and stimulus checks, grants, and a lot of vaccines. Photo by Christopher Victorio

Mostly, though, venues are hoping to wait for the all clear, so fans can bring all of their pent up energy without fear. Getting to that moment, however, will be nerve-racking. 

“Before we can open our doors, the pandemic needs to be firmly controlled, or we just won’t feel comfortable about opening,” Schwarz wrote. “To be perfectly honest, I am more scared of opening than I was a year ago of closing down, and that’s saying a lot!”

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