The city of Philadelphia issued new rules on Tuesday for public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic, allowing fans to attend Eagles games for the first time this season.
But for music venues that have been shut down since March and are hoping to get back in the game, the numbers don’t add up.
The new rules for indoor theaters and performance spaces announced by Health Commissioner Thomas Farley on Tuesday allow for indoor theaters and performance spaces to operate at 10% capacity, with a maximum of 250 people permitted in larger venues.
That means a capacious showplace like the Met Philadelphia, which can hold up to 3,400 fans for a sold-out show, would be limited to 250, including bands, crew, and staff.
A spokesman for Live Nation, the concert promotion company that operates the Met in North Philly, the Fillmore in Fishtown, and many other venues, didn’t rule out putting on reduced capacity shows in the future, but said they had no “specific details to share at this moment.”
Kerri Park, general manager of the World Cafe Live, said that shows of such a diminished size would be a definite no-go. The two-tiered University City venue can hold up to 650 standing fans in its downstairs Music Hall and 200 in its upstairs Lounge, but would only be able to allow one-tenth of those numbers through the door.
“World Cafe Live has no intention of presenting a show with an audience at this time,” Park said. “The ability to open at such a reduced capacity is simply not economically feasible. We have real fixed costs like rent, utilities, payroll, taxes, insurance, sanitation protocols, and artist payments that aren’t on a sliding scale to match the regulation numbers.”
Christianna LaBuz, who books bands at the City Winery Philadelphia in the Fashion District mall, said that the venue likely would have gone ahead with reduced capacity shows, as its outposts in Chicago, New York, and Nashville have done, if permitted to sell food and drinks to concertgoers.
Even when concert venues are operating at full capacity, they earn most of their profits on concessions and bar revenue, not ticket sales. So Farley’s statement in his news conference on Tuesday that food and beverages are forbidden would be a deal breaker for City Winery, which holds 350 and 150 in its two seated rooms. “That’s not viable for us,” LaBuz said.
While the warm weather has lasted, drive-in concerts and some outdoor socially distanced shows have been staged in the Philadelphia area. And the rules announced Tuesday for outdoor venues are somewhat looser, with 15% of a venue’s capacity allowed.
But as fall heads into winter and in a normal year shows would traditionally move indoors, the pandemic concert business will be forced to mainly operate on a virtual basis.
There will be some exceptions, such as clubs that are also restaurants, like Chris' Jazz Cafe in Center City, which is regularly putting on indoor shows. And bands like Philly’s Disco Biscuits are continuing to play drive-in shows even as it gets chilly: On Wednesday, the band announced a tour that includes Oct. 23 and 24 dates at Montage Mountain in Scranton.
But for the most part, performers kept off the road by the coronavirus will continue to play livestream events from empty clubs or their own homes while venues hope much-needed assistance from the federal government comes through to hold them over before they have to close permanently.
The plight of independent venues will be highlighted this weekend with Save Our Stages Festival, a three-day virtual showcase in which acts like Miley Cyrus, Dave Matthews, Brittany Howard, and Reba McEntire will perform from venues around the country, including World Cafe Live.
Songwriter-producer Cautious Clay’s set will air from the World Cafe Live on Saturday, and Philadelphia hip-hop band The Roots will play the festival staged by the National Independent Venues Association, that same night at the Apollo Theatre in New York.
The event, which will be streamed for free on NIVA’s home page starting at 8 p.m. Friday, is a fund-raiser that aims to call attention to the Save Our Stages act, which passed in the U.S. House but has yet to be acted on by the Senate.
Rather than attempt to operate at reduced capacity, “what small independent venues really need right now is a stimulus package to provide real relief while we remain closed,” World Cafe Live’s Park said. “Then we can start to look to a citywide comprehensive plan for recovery of Philly nightlife and the creative economy.”
Sean Agnew, who co-owns and books Union Transfer on Spring Garden Street, calculated that under the new Philadelphia rules for non-seated venues, the indie-rock room would be permitted 120 people inside. With 20 people on staff, “that gets us to 100 tickets.”
Even with a $50 ticket — which would be by far the most expensive in the venue’s history — the venue would be operating at a significant loss, Agnew said.
“It’s hopeful to see the first baby steps, but impossible to open on these restrictions,” he said. “I really hope that elected officials do not think that this 10% would allow a venue to reopen. If everyone stays healthy, and things move along in a hopeful direction and we can get to 50%, we could make that work. But that would mean 500-plus people in a space. That seems nearly impossible without a vaccine.”