The first rule of the pandemic: avoid a crowded house full of strangers. But for live theatres and music venues, a full house is the sign of an entertaining — and profitable — evening. While restaurants, retail shops and gyms have slowly reopened, indoor performance venues have kept their doors closed. As California nears June 15 — the finish-line for the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy — raising the curtains at these venues still has its challenges.
The lack of indoor venues hasn’t stopped Derek Negron and Leo Lobo, the two musicians in the world-beat and tropical duo Lobo Negron. With Negron on guitar and Lobo on percussion, the duo played a rendition of the Beatles’ "Let It Be" in downtown Santa Cruz to a small crowd of onlookers on a recent sunny Friday afternoon.
“A lot of people are dying to hear it,” said Negron, who also sings for the group. “We can just go out anywhere, play some music outdoors, whoever happens by is just so starving for music.”
The two musicians have played at venues across Santa Cruz County. But the pandemic put that on hold for local and touring musicians across California. Julie Baker is the executive director of Californians for the Arts, a non-profit group that advocates for artists and venues.
“Until several months ago…there was nothing on (the Blueprint) for any type of live event, theatre event, music, or anything like that,” she said.
After she and other art advocates pushed the state to make a plan for these businesses, the guidelines followed suit with restaurants and other indoor spaces, capping the number of people allowed inside. Even in the least restrictive Yellow Tier of the state’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy, venues could only host 25% of a full house.
“That makes no sense economically. There’s no way we can do that,” said Christine Sandin, the artistic director at the Sunset Center in Carmel. Sandin said the Sunset Center was on “life support” during the lockdown. They had to lay off 80 percent of the theatre’s staff, and their budget was reduced to less than a third of its typical $3.5 million.
Replacing the magic of live entertainment was difficult during the pandemic, but the remaining staff at the Sunset Center stayed busy by live streaming performances online. Other performance spaces did the same. Tim Jackson, the artistic director at Kuumbwa Jazz in Santa Cruz, said the empty music venue has transformed during the pandemic.
“Right now, if you walk into the venue, it looks more like a television studio or a soundstage than a live music venue,” he said.
Kuumbwa Jazz started a popular online series of free live-streamed performances, called Mondays with Kuumbwa. The venue also hosted a series of virtual “master classes” — music lessons taught by jazz musicians.
“The artists have taken a huge hit. And frankly, a large part of our mission statement is to employ jazz artists,” he said, adding that for some jazz musicians, performing and teaching is their only source of income.
The series is so popular that Jackson said the videos may continue, even after Kuumbwa Jazz is filled with concertgoers again.
On June 15, the Department of Public Health plans to drop pandemic restrictions, shedding the Blueprint altogether, and with it any capacity restrictions or physical distance limitations on performance venues. But even with the end of California’s lockdown in sight, Jackson said getting back to a booked concert schedule is going to take some time.
“We can’t wait to get back open,” Jackson said. “But we don’t really know exactly what’s going to happen on June 15. And we also don’t know what our patrons' appetite for coming inside the venue is going to be.”
Reopening is likely to bring relief to many struggling venues. Julie Baker of Californians for the Arts said the biggest obstacle now is funding.
“We have to reopen. We have to rehire. We have to retrain,” she said, adding that many venues that survived the pandemic are also in a tremendous amount of debt.
But Christine Sandin with Carmel’s Sunset Center said, come June 15, when the state lifts pandemic restrictions, businesses are left with the tricky responsibility of deciding how to safely reopen.
“It’s like passing the hot potato back to the venue managers,” she said.
The Sunset Center asked their crowds about it directly. Sandin said of the roughly 1,000 members of the community that responded to a recent survey, 80 percent said they were vaccinated and ready to see live performances again. The Sunset Center’s first indoor show is planned for September 30. Kuumbwa Jazz is also planning to reopen in the fall.