Columbia-area entertainment venues weigh whether to reopen during COVID-19 | COVID-19

New Brookland Tavern has been closed since March.

John Carlos

For Mike Lyons, recent changes in South Carolina’s restrictions to battle the spread of COVID-19 feel like one step forward and one step back.

Yes, Gov. Henry McMaster did lift a measure that was keeping music venues from operating, meaning there’s now one less legal wrinkle to consider whenever he feels it’s safe to start having shows again at his venerable West Columbia rock dive, New Brookland Tavern. But late-July also brought new restrictions to bar areas, stipulating that people can’t stand in the vicinity of the bar and that bar stools have to be placed six feet apart.

In other words, he can have shows, but the standing-room crowds that regularly attend the venue aren’t likely to fly.

“I don’t know how they’re going to control that in a music venue like ours where it’s a standing room show,” Lyons says. “People come in and they’re just kind of, it’s essentially just people roaming around.”

The solution, for now, is to reopen the tavern as a restaurant. But distancing parameters will mean that the room will seat far fewer than its normal capacity of 250, down to about 40 or 50 when it resumes indoor operation for the first time since March, perhaps as early as this week.

Lyons’ hopes, as far as revenue, aren’t great.

“I don’t think it’s going to be anywhere close to what it normally was,” he offers.

“Honestly, the goal for myself is just to be able to get the employees back to work and paying them again. And trying to stop some of the hemorrhage, and trying to have some money coming in to help with some of the bills.”

The venue could move to host some acoustic acts during its meal services, but they will have to be paid through tips from the audience. Lyons says proper shows aren’t likely to return before the new year, at which point they’ll likely be quite needed.

“I think I can cover the rent here for the rest of the year,” he says. “I unfortunately don’t have a landlord who gave me any kind of break. So we’ve already been closed since March with paying rent every month and paying electric bills and stuff like that with no revenue coming in. The idea is we can survive, but anything we can do with the restaurant style of opening will help it extend a little while longer, as well.”

But New Brookland is far from the only entertainment venue around, and with theaters, stadiums, auditoriums and amphitheaters and other spaces now allowed to operate at 50 percent capacity, different rooms are taking different approaches.

Newberry Opera House / photo provided

The intimate Newberry Opera House will resume operation at the full capacity allowed, 200, on Aug. 15 with a concert from the Black Jacket Symphony. It will proceed through a calendar that includes three more August events and five in September.

“Well, we’ve had 158-plus days to plan for reopening,” Executive Director Molly Fortune responds when asked why now is the time to reopen. “And within that 158-plus days, we have worked with government officials, healthcare officials, our board, our executive committee, our staff, to put together a reopening plan. And that plan has been modified since roughly around June 5, and it has been practiced, it has been refined as new guidelines come out.

“For example with the Executive Order 2020-50, all patrons must now wear a mask. So our plan already had all staff and all artists and all artists crew and all food crew already doing those, so it was very easy for us to pivot and say, ‘Now, guests, you will be required to wear masks.’”

But she says she also felt an urgency to get back to business, both for the sake of the venue and the sake of the town.

“Performing arts venues are the economic drivers for many towns, and especially small rural towns,” Fortune says. “So when one of the restaurants has a 90 percent drop in food service, a lot of it’s because we’re not open. Our responsibility is to help our business owners as well.”

She also cites estimates from the National Independent Venue Association that 90 percent of such rooms, of which Newberry Opera House is one, could shutter as a result of the pandemic.

“We do not want to be one of those,” Fortune states, speaking to the need to restart event revenue as soon as possible.

The Nickelodeon Theatre marquee on the morning of March 18.

Thomas Hammond

In downtown Columbia, both Trustus Theatre, the city’s long-standing professional theater company, and the Nickelodeon Theatre, the municipality’s lone arthouse cinema, plan to remain closed for the time being.

“We don’t have a date set,” offers Anita Floyd, executive director of the Columbia Film Society, which oversees the Nick. “The context of the numbers, cases, and positive cases is one factor. And then, there’s just other things that we need to think about when opening the theater. We’ve got a plan to be safe. So for us, that will be fewer than the maximum 50 percent, because in order to distance it’s going to be fewer folks.”

Whenever the cinema does reopen, there will be difficulties. Beyond the challenge of convincing potential patrons it’s both safe and worth it to venture out to the theater when many strong indie flicks are flocking to streaming services with screens closed, and distributors dragging their feet on releasing upcoming films while they wait for more cinemas to reopen, the budgetary math will be hard to balance.

“I think that we have to accept that it’s going to be less for the foreseeable future,” she explains. “Our board has built a budget that just acknowledges that. We’re anticipating that we’ll be at much less than half-capacity. But there are some thresholds. It’s hard to open and bring all the staff in, especially because you have to do extra things, and you’ve got fewer screenings. It’s more work for less reward. So we do have some thresholds on that. But we totally anticipate that it’s going to be much less. And that’s how we built our budget for the next year.”

Floyd acknowledges, too, that there’s greater scrutiny now on whatever the Nickelodeon does next because of accusations of systemic racism that emerged in June, triggering an internal review at the Columbia Film Society and the departure of the head of Indie Grits, the theater’s associated media education group that puts on its popular annual film festival.

“We want to put the most pressure for success, anyway,” she contends. “We wouldn’t be casual about it in any circumstance, because it is obviously a health and safety issue. We definitely do want to succeed, we want to lead with our best foot, so we’re going to be really careful, no matter what.”

Trustus Theatre stands empty.

John Carlos

At Trustus, the decision of when to come back hinges on two equally important concerns — the health of the audiences and the health of the cast and crew.

“I still don’t feel like we’re at a point where communing in our theater is going to be safe,” offers Producing Artistic Director Chad Henderson. “I also right now don’t think I feel safe gathering a cast, even if it’s a small cast, together to work on a production.”

The theater continues to look to step up its virtual endeavors, mustering a reading of the 1911 look at women’s suffrage Something to Vote For that will premiere via on Aug. 26. But staying closed is hard — Henderson shares that roughly 75 percent of the theater’s annual budget comes from earned revenue such as tickets and concessions.

And balancing the equation of making enough money with smaller houses, if Trustus does reopen while capacity restrictions are still necessary, won’t be easy.

“Fifty percent for us is not unlike doing a show in our Side Door space, which will be closed this year. It only seats 50,” Henderson offers. “But kind of the way to look at it is those shows are tailored for smaller audiences, they’re more challenging topics, and so those shows really allow us to flex our artistic muscles, but financially, they simply provide revenue as you get into your next show where you can seat 132 people. So it’s cutting down material budgets and running shows for longer than generally we would.”

One concern echoed by each of these venue heads was the headaches that would come if they resumed something close to normal operation and then were forced to close again.

“It’s a staffing issue,” Floyd says. “You hate to start pulling people back and then tell them that, ‘Oh, we’re going to take another lapse, and you’re going to be furloughed.’ There’s issues about being fair to staff about that kind of thing. We don’t have the same pressures as a restaurant that has to do a lot of food ordering, that they have to manage, we have some concessions but obviously it’s nothing like that. So my concern is mostly yanking the staff around.”

“It is there,” the Opera House’s Fortune answers when asked about anxiety over having to shut down again. “We are trying to make sure that the message is, ‘Please be as prepared as you can as a patron. Take your temperature before you come. If you don’t feel good, don’t come. Please know that we’re not the bad guy, you’re going to have to wear a mask. Let’s not screw this up. Because we all want to come back. So let’s do this together and let’s get through this together.’”

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