It’s been more than a year since music and live entertainment venues in Oakland turned off their stage lights. Some have bided their time, while others were forced to shutter for good. Among the casualties: The Uptown Nightclub, which closed in September, and Starline Social Club, which called it quits in October.
Some banded together to form the National Independent Venue Association and pressure Congress for financial relief. Of the 800 venues nationwide that joined NIVA, 25 are in the Bay Area, including The New Parish and The Fox Theater (operated by Another Planet Entertainment) in Oakland. The association played a key role in getting Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act, a $16 billion emergency assistance fund that launched this week.
More seemingly good news arrived on April 2, when California’s health department announced that performance venues in counties in the orange tier, including Alameda County, would be allowed to host indoor shows, in a limited fashion, as early as April 15.
But operating guidelines are complicated, and venue operators we spoke with in Oakland said they won’t be welcoming patrons for live shows right away—at least not until they get more clarity on the rules, and are allowed to operate at a capacity that makes it worth their while.
According to the state guidelines, as of April 15, indoor seated live-event venues with capacities of under 1,500 guests can operate at 15% capacity, with a maximum of 200 people. The number of attendees can increase to 35% only if all guests “are tested or show proof of full vaccination.”
Sarah Fink Dempsey, a spokesperson for Another Planet Entertainment, which manages shows for The Fox Theater, told The Oaklandside that although the loosening of restrictions is encouraging, reopening as soon as possible makes little business sense.
“Until guidelines allow events to operate close to or at full capacity, we are not able to produce concerts in a way that makes financial sense,” she wrote. Getting more people vaccinated, she added, “is the quickest path to a safe return to concerts. The concert industry was the first to close and will be the last to reopen.”
Other local music venues appear to be following suit. Yoshi’s jazz club in Jack London Square won’t resume live concerts until they can do so at full capacity. And Billy Joe Agan, co-owner of Eli’s Mile High Club, told NOSH last month that the West Oakland bar and live music venue won’t be rushing to reopen, despite the relaxed guidelines.
Revenue isn’t the only consideration being weighed by venue owners. Some cited the difficulty of booking performers on short notice. There is also the question of how to enforce vaccination rules and ensure that customers entering venues are COVID-free.
According to Neetu Balram, public information manager for the Alameda County health department, individual businesses will be on the hook “to determine how they check if someone has been tested” and to make sure patrons provide “proof of a complete COVID-19 vaccination. We would look to the State to provide any additional guidance.”
Michael O’Connor, the owner of The New Parish, decided to hold off on resuming shows in April, citing the state’s back-and-forth guidance on reopening and concerns about his ability to do so safely.
“I think that the state and the governor’s office has done a really poor job handling so many levels of the coronavirus response,” O’Connor said. “I will only reopen when I think it’s safe. And now the state is telling me, ‘Oh, you can open up sooner.’ Well, I don’t agree with that.”
Instead, O’Connor is diligently working to book music acts and reorganize the venue’s interior for physically distant seated shows, with an eye on the first weekend in June.
The New Parish, located downtown on San Pablo Avenue at 18th Street, has an outdoor courtyard, which O’Connor plans to make accessible for those who feel the need to get fresh air and not be indoors for the entirety of the shows, once they begin.
“People want to ease into it. They want to get out and they want to support live music, but nobody wants to go to a packed club,” O’Connor said. “I see some of the recent reopening guidelines that are shifting this last week as being too much, too soon.”
Other, smaller venues, share a similar outlook. In a message to The Oaklandside, a representative for The Legionnaire Saloon wrote: “We aren’t ready to open the venue space yet, and we probably won’t host events until we can operate at full capacity.” The bar on Telegraph Avenue has a loft area upstairs, where it hosts DJs and live bands.
Venue owners and operators are also on their own when it comes to adding any safety upgrades to their businesses. Items like hand sanitizer, signs to indicate proper physical distancing, and equipment like air-purifiers are all out-of-pocket costs for businesses. Balram confirmed that Alameda County Health Care Services Agency won’t be providing any financial support, and individual businesses are encouraged to “check what grants and funding resources may be available through the State, their city’s economic development departments, the County’s Community Development Agency, and the East Bay Economic Development Alliance.”
For O’Connor, reopening safely is the number one priority. “I’m choosing to be conservative and have a lower capacity than what the state is saying,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a small business’s role to start to police people. What we should be is good community partners, and we should be wanting to implement safe practices. [The state] is starting to speed up the re-opening too fast. I hope that we don’t have another COVID spike.”