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For indoor Philadelphia concert venues, will COVID-19 anxiety ever go away?

Philadelphia indoor concert venues navigate mask-wearing, vaccination, and COVID anxiety.

Alex G performs during a sold out show at the Philly Music Fest at World Cafe Live in Phila., Pa. in October
Alex G performs during a sold out show at the Philly Music Fest at World Cafe Live in Phila., Pa. in OctoberRead moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer

During the live music shutdown of the coronavirus pandemic, the owners of indoor venues in Philadelphia waited not so patiently to be able to once again let fans through their doors.

“We were sweating bullets for months: Oh my God, are we ever going to be able to reopen? How is that going to happen?” says Hal Real, owner of the World Cafe Live.

“And then immediately after reopening,” adds Real, who’s also cofounder of the National Independent Venue Association, “we all changed to: How are we going to stay open until things become normal again?”

Live music has now been back in clubs, theaters, and arenas since late summer, and concerts have moved almost exclusively inside now that the weather has turned cooler.

But normal is still a long way off. COVID-19 has altered the live music experience for fans, bands, and indoor venues.

Some shows, like Philly hard-rock band Sheer Mag’s three-night stand at PhilaMOCA this month and Billie Eilish’s brother Finneas’ date at the Theatre of Living Arts this weekend, have been quick sellouts.

Many venues, though, report sluggish sales for shows that aren’t such hot tickets, particularly acts that appeal to older fans with COVID-19 fears.

Indie rock room Union Transfer has had a string of sold-out shows since reopening with five Japanese Breakfast dates in August, but booker Sean Agnew said sales for acts like blues guitarist Samantha Fish and 1990s indie act Luna continue to be sluggish.

And since the delta variant spread fear this summer, the concert business has been plagued by no-shows, with more than 20% of ticket holders commonly not showing up, says Dave Brooks, who covers the live music industry for Billboard.

Helen Smith, who books shows for City Winery Philadelphia in the Fashion District, says no-shows are partly due to confusion. “Some of these shows have been rescheduled three or four times, so people forget they’re happening.”

(Brooks says he doesn’t expect the outdoor music festival business to shrink in 2022 as a result of the Astroworld tragedy in Houston last weekend, in which nine people were killed in a rush, particularly when it comes to what he calls “professional, well-run festivals” like Jay-Z’s Made in America, but there will changes to “design and preparation that will hopefully make concerts safer.”)

COVID-19 safety precautions are in place at all Philly-area concert sites, but they vary widely. Fans should check venue websites for details and protocols.

Clubs like Union Transfer, Ardmore Music Hall, Underground Arts, and World Cafe Live require proof of vaccination for entry to all shows and also require masks to be worn when not eating or drinking.

Live Nation venues such as the Met Philadelphia (where Bob Dylan is due Nov. 29 and 30), Fillmore Philly, Theatre of Living Arts, and the brand-new Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia require a vax card and also accept proof of a negative test within 72 hours. All require masks.

At the city’s largest indoor venue, the Wells Fargo Center in South Philadelphia, the city’s mask mandate is in effect, but vaccination requirements are up to the touring act.

Of the four arena acts coming to the Wells Fargo in December, only the Jingle Ball on Dec. 13 has a vaccine or negative test requirement. Genesis on Dec. 2-3, Andrea Bocelli on Dec. 8, and Trans-Siberian Orchestra Dec. 17 do not, despite the performers’ appeal to older audiences.

What does a mask mandate mean in practice? James Garrow of the city’s Health Department notes that Philadelphia is the only county in the region with an indoor mask mandate, and he draws a correlation with the city also having the lowest COVID-19 case rate in the region.

Anyone who’s taken a look around at a large public event, though, knows that 100% mask wearing doesn’t happen, and that compliance can range from pretty good to hardly anybody.

If you tap them on the shoulder and point to your own mask, people will generally comply, says Louis Landro, a 72-year-old security guard and guest services worker who’s a familiar face at music venues in the region.

“Some need one or two reminders, but most people are accommodating,” he says. “Alcohol can be a problem, and also entitlement. People who think they can do what they want without any consequences.”

Mask compliance can be aided by a word from the stage. “It’s good to just give the crowd a gentle reminder that we really appreciate the people who have chosen to wear their masks,” says Marisa Dabice of Philadelphia band Mannequin Pussy, who were the first band on stage when Union Transfer reopened in August and played a sold-out headlining date there last month. “We have a touring party to keep healthy, and we’ll say whatever we need to to remind people that this a collective action at this point.”

COVID-19 has transformed touring, Dabice says. “We’re not going to to bars, we’re not going out to restaurants.” Bands continue to reschedule shows due to positive tests. Waxahatchee’s two October dates at Union Transfer are now happening on April 10 and 11. Devotchka’s Dec. 11 date in Ardmore was canceled this week because of COVID.

“I think every touring band right now understands the risks, but unfortunately there’s no more government money for us, there’s no unemployment. So we really have no choice but to return to work and adapt to these new challenges,” Dabice says.

Dabice spoke to The Inquirer while on tour last month, before the band faced serious hardship. After a gig in Akron, Ohio, their van and a trailer full of gear, merchandise, and personal items were stolen. None of it has been recovered.

COVID-19 restrictions also have contributed to the no-show numbers. Rob Beatson, 59, of North Wilmington, Del., went to see Yo La Tengo at Arden Gild Hall in September. But he gave up tickets to Wilco at the Mann Center and Guided By Voices in Lancaster.

“For me the ultimate show experience is being with friends, beer in hand, singing along, cheering. It’s very physical. … Wearing a mask through the whole show takes much of the joy out of it. ... Plus I tend to obsess about other people’s behavior. No mask, standing too close, coughing. The pandemic has definitely made me more neurotic when it come to live music.”

» READ MORE: ‘Show me the money’: Philly music venues are still waiting for COVID-19 relief grants they desperately need

Indie venues are thankful for the lifeline of federal funds from the Save Our Stages Act passed at the close of 2020 and distributed through the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant program earlier this year.

“I’m feeling optimistic and extremely grateful for the efforts that NIVA put into getting that bailout,” says Chris Perella, who co-owns and books Ardmore Music Hall and also places shows at venues like MilkBoy Philly in Center City and 118 North in Wayne.

Those funds have been essential, Perella says, because there’s been a “COVID ripple effect” that’s increased the cost of all aspects of the live music business.

There are unexpected costs, Perella says, like a Living Colour show he had booked with Jesse Lundy of Point Entertainment at the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville that was canceled because a shortage of buses kept the band from mounting a concert tour.

Perella also cites raising labor costs needed to check vax cards and IDs. Music venues make their money at the bar, and food and drink revenues are lower because there are fewer bodies in the building, and also because of masks. “The per-head metric is down, without a doubt.”

In the meantime, venue owners are taking a patient, cautiously optimistic approach. “People are still wary about going out and sitting next to strangers in a venue,” says City Winery’s Smith. “But the fall was a little better than the summer, and I think the winter going to be a little better than the fall.”

Paul Bacher, who books the Brooklyn Bowl Philadelphia in Fishtown, says the no-show numbers are dropping industry-wide.

“We just have to keep moving forward and making events vax-only and we’ll get out of this thing,” says David Pianka, the promoter of the roving Making Time dance party, who put on an outdoor festival at Fort Mifflin in September for 1,200 that he plans to double in size next year.

Perella and the World Cafe Live’s Real say that walk-up business for shows has started to pick up, signaling that COVID-19 fears are subsiding. Ticket sales for the end of the year “are starting to rev up,” says Union Transfer’s Agnew.

Real is hopeful that increased vaccine availability will lead to more concertgoers. “I think boosters have given the older bracket more confidence to go out,” he says. “But more importantly, I think the change we’re going to see is with 30- to 45-year-olds who’ve been very protective of their kids who are now going to start to get vaccinated.”

All those are good signs for the future, Real says, “though nobody’s blowing down the doors.” He agrees with Bacher that the indoor venue business probably won’t return to its robust pre-pandemic levels until the fall of 2022. “I think we’re all going to be nervous Nellies for a while.”