Sweaty bodies slammed against one another during the Strokes’ set last month at Seattle’s WaMu Theatre. The heat in the mosh pit was rising as fans gasped for air during “Hard to Explain.”
It was as if the novel coronavirus did not exist, even though indications a new normal was on the horizon could be seen a mile from the venue as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city quickly turned into a ghost town.
Tool headlined the Spokane Arena the same night, March 9, as 9,161 fans watched the arty hard rock band. There were an array of events in Spokane the first two weeks of March: 34,427 checked out Tool, the Spokane Chiefs, state basketball games, “Chicago: The Musical” and “The Bachelor Live.”
Less than a week after the shows, Gov. Jay Inslee banned public gatherings. There are several questions about when businesses can reopen and people can get together again, but many are unanswerable, including, when will there be concerts and theater?
Dr. Zeke Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist and senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told the New York Times that events will not resume until October 2021.
Brian Ritter, general manager of the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, doesn’t know how anyone can guess when the coronavirus will abate or when concerts will be slated.
“A date (for when normalcy returns) is shooting at a moving target,” Ritter said. “All we can do is follow state guidelines and hope for progress.”
However, at some point, concerts and other public gatherings will be scheduled. The bigger question is not when but how will promoters set up events so they are safe for performers and the audience?
Matt Meyer, the director of entertainment of Spokane Arena and the First Interstate Center for the Arts, is looking for answers.
“I’ve been on phone calls with (Los Angeles arena) the Staples Center, and I’ll be on the phone with TicketsWest talking about what may happen,” Meyer said. “We’re talking about what venues might have to do. If there isn’t a vaccine, the issue will be keeping social distance, which would alter the seating configuration.
“To deal with social distance, we’ll probably allow people to buy tickets in pairs. We’ll have to space on their side, in front of them and behind them.”
That will dramatically reduce the revenue of each show. Will it be worth it for a recording artist to tour for a reduced income, or is some payment better than no payment?
“We can open the house and make it work so the artists will still get paid and everyone else working in the building gets paid, as well,” Meyer said.
There are other issues that must be dealt with well beyond the stage. How will concessions, which is a big part of the nightly take, be handled? With social distancing, 6 feet of distance between people, will the line for beer snake out the door? What about venue bathrooms?
“We’re looking at all of those questions,” Meyer said. “How will we handle concessions? Maybe we’ll go cashless. The bottom line is how do we make it safer for people when they get into the building?”
That’s going to be another issue. Security measures in larger venues such as the Arena and the FICA create a traffic jam at the entrances. How can people enter venues, especially the size of Spokane Arena, with social distancing?
The arts and entertainment industry will have its hands full. The Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center at Gonzaga hopes to be up and running by autumn, said Laura Sims, the director of the new venue.
“We are awaiting an update from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee regarding the state’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ order that is effective through May 4,” Sims said. “In the meantime, we are planning for multiple scenarios for the fall semester.
“We will follow guidance from federal, state and local authorities with respect to appropriate reintroduction of larger gatherings and social distancing measures on campus.”
Jeff vom Saal, the executive director of the Spokane Symphony and Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox, believes it will be so difficult logistically that it will be nearly impossible to pull off a show until normalcy returns.
“I just don’t think we can have events until the coronavirus passes,” vom Saal said. “It’s an exercise in futility in so many ways. On paper, the policies people come up with look like they might work, but it’s going to be so difficult in reality. Nothing that is set up will work in a lobby, restroom or bar. It’s going to be so difficult for fans.”
Much of the focus is on patrons, but what about the musicians’ health and those working backstage?
“People do forget about the talent and those who put the show together,” vom Saal said. “So the musicians are going to be 6 feet apart and the crew are going to be 6 feet apart at every moment? That’s not going to work.
“And then let’s focus on the musicians performing. The job of brass players is to blow air. I just don’t see how this is going to work until the coronavirus is over. We have to be patient. We don’t have a playbook on this. I know people get their social dose of life at the Fox, but we’re just going to have to wait.”
Jerry Dicker, who owns the Bing Crosby Theater and Montvale Event Center, among other properties, also believes it is going to be difficult to present any shows since the experience for fans will be diminished. Dicker chuckled when asked about fans attending shows clad in masks and gloves.
“I’m in Los Angeles, and I know how it feels to wear a mask,” Dicker said. “They’re taking the coronavirus here very seriously here, as they should. You have to wear your mask here any time you go out. Masks are uncomfortable.
“I can’t imagine people paying to see someone perform while they’re uncomfortable behind a mask. If you love Bruce Springsteen and you have to wear a mask, I doubt that you will wear the mask for hours. When people go out to a show or a restaurant, they’re not going to want to wear a mask, and we shouldn’t take any risks right now.”
Dicker speaks from experience. He battled the flu for five weeks. “I don’t think I had the coronavirus, but I had the flu and it was bad,” Dicker said. “I couldn’t fly back to Spokane. I’m just getting over it and I’m alright now, but I had to do what everybody else is doing, which is play by the rules. There are a lot of brilliant minds working on this. They’ll figure something out. We just have to be patient and hope it ends sooner than later.”
Sooner by the most optimistic standards would be late summer. Meyer is crossing his fingers that the ban will be lifted by the time Wilco and Sleater-Kinney co-headline the FICA on Aug. 6.
“That’s a huge show for us, and there are others coming up after that such as Cher (rescheduled for Oct. 10 at the Spokane Arena),” Meyer said.
However, the reality is that many people aren’t looking ahead and buying tickets for shows.
“That’s fitting since I think concerts will be the last thing to come back,” Dicker said. “People are buying food and filling their cars with gas right now. It’s hard to imagine people would be thinking about concerts now.”
However, tickets are selling for the screening of “Napoleon Dynamite” on Nov. 12 at the Fox. The hook is that three principal actors, Jon Heder, Efren Ramirez and Jon Gries, will be on hand for a Q&A.
“That’s one show that’s doing well,” Ritter said. “We put the tickets on sale after we closed. Maybe the tickets are selling because the show is in November and a lot of people love ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’
“I hope we’re back by November. I miss the shows and the people who come out. At this point, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens and hope we get back to normal before the year ends.”
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