With questions swirling about exactly when concert and entertainment venues can move forward without COVID-19 concerns, many local music hall owners and managers fear what the future holds.
Stymied by government-issued reductions to capacity and a continuing spike in cases, local venues are forced to postpone events that would normally go off without a hitch.
“We’ve done a couple of dance recitals,” said Mary Lee Gay, a spokesperson for AMG Global, the management company for the Saenger Theatre and Civic Center. “We’ve had one at the Saenger and two at the Civic Center. Other than that, it’s quiet.”
During this portion of the summer, Saegner is usually in the middle of hosting a classic film series. However, due to the pandemic, Gay said, the event has been postponed. The theater management company tried to make it work with only 31 percent occupancy, but a spike in cases made them change their minds about it, she said.
“We felt like things were going in the wrong direction and we didn’t want to perpetuate that,” she said. “We’re all disappointed. We didn’t want to make this decision.”
At issue for many in charge of booking events at venues like the Civic Center and Saenger is doing so with limited seating available. Even at its best, Gay said, the Saenger could only accomodate about 37 percent of its overall capacity within the guidelines of social distancing.
“That’s not going to work with promoters,” she said.
The next major event planned at the Saenger is the Black Jacket Symphony slated for Oct. 10. After that, Jason Isbell is scheduled to play in December.
“I wish there was some kind of magic number or formula, but there’s not,” Gay said. “It’s probably the most uncomfortable feeling you could feel in this industry. We’re used to chaos, but this is completely different chaos.”
Maggie Smith, manager of Soul Kitchen, said the music hall is reeling from being closed for almost five months and having received no federal assistance through the Payroll Protection Program. Soul Kitchen is facing similar problems that many venues nationwide have.
“It’s hard on venues throughout the U.S. because there’s a lot of uncertainty now,” she said. “No one knows when this will end.”
The pandemic is especially hard on independent venues, Smith said. A recent study, Smith said, indicated that as many as 90 percent of independent music halls could shut by the end of the year. Following guidelines for some venues, especially drive-in concerts, is also a challenge because, as Smith put it, “you can’t physically go up and put a mask” on someone.
However, Smith said she’s confident Soul Kitchen will survive.
Smith said The Molly Ringwalds are booked at Soul Kitchen for Saturday, July 25, and for the time being, smaller shows like that might be it for the venue. The band was booked when COVID-19 looked to have hit its peak, but that wasn’t the case, she said.
Jim Pennington, owner of The Peoples Room of Mobile, said he’s benefitted from a need for people to get out and see live music, despite the pandemic.
“Some people were ready to get out and the people who are ready to get out support the Room,” Pennington said. “People feel safe here.”
Pennington’s venue off of Royal Street downtown normally can seat about 60 visitors. Due to limitations, the room now seats about 30, which is still workable for smaller acts, he said. Business has picked up for the Room since reopening recently. It was initially shut down on March 14.
“The Room’s doing great,” he said. “We’ve been through some tough times, but we’ll usually have between 20 and 30 people in here.”
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