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The Road to Reopening: How are local music venues going to handle Phase III?

This pandemic has taken a massive toll on the entertainment industry, and it’s one that might be insurmountable for small clubs. On a national level, the newly formed National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) revealed that “90% of independent venues report that if the shutdown lasts six months and there’s no federal assistance, they will never reopen again.” On June 18, NIVA released a letter signed by a who’s who of musicians calling for financial relief from Congress.

Here in Little Rhody, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon. As I was beginning to put this column together, Governor Raimondo announced in a press conference that indoor public spaces will be able to open with 66% capacity in Phase III of reopening. She was asked whether the indoor openings will include establishments with live music. 

Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor answered in the affirmative, noting that performers will be required to be 14 feet from the audience, with musicians also spaced apart. He went on to say that venues will be required to come up with an approved plan, and that specific guidance for music venues will be released in the coming weeks. The governor has since announced that for free-flowing venues, like music venues, one person per 100 square feet is allowed.

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But there remain many unknowns. Much of RI’s live music was silenced in March when entertainment licenses were pulled by the city of Providence, so it’s unclear how city regulations will jive with the statewide rules. And furthermore, is it worthwhile for small clubs to book shows at reduced capacities? 

I talked to three local venues about their plans for the near future. Noah Donnelly of Nick-A-Nee’s cited an executive order from the City of Providence on June 18 that says nothing about lifting the live music ban, so they’re holding out on hosting music for more clarification on the rules. 

As far as operational changes going forward, Donnelly “assumes it will be the same as it was prior” if music is allowed in Providence. He added, “We are going day by day. There does not seem to be a real plan for the arts, and that is very disappointing.”

In an effort to play it safe, The Parlour is also waiting it out. Gregory Rourke said that “with limited space and no outdoor seating, it’s impossible for us to socially distance effectively,” and that “the risk outweighs the reward.” He said they will be starting take-out food service after July 4. 

Rourke’s concerns point to the element that may be the toughest for these neighborhood spots. For most patrons, it’s not about just the live music; it’s about getting together with friends at a bar for talking, drinking and general merriment. Implementing this new normal with social distancing is going to be a tall order. 

Local musician Mark Lambert organized a wildly successful fundraiser to benefit The Parlour; it raised more than $8,000 after an initial goal of just $2,000. Rourke said without that, they would’ve closed for good. “This has been an incredibly hard time for many,” Rourke added. “The music/entertainment field has suffered greatly, and it’s been amazing to see so much love and support in the community.”

When I heard from Danielle Tellier of Dusk, they were in the beginning phases of formulating a Phase III reopening plan. They’re hoping to start off with limited live acoustic acts and DJs, with both indoor and outdoor seating.

Dusk is taking safety seriously, with plans to implement measures like “a designated ordering station, Plexi partitions, ample space between tables both indoor and out, mask requirements when ordering/going to the restrooms, disposable everything and available sanitizer.” 

Teller also realizes the constraints. “Our largest hurdle is that our floor space is not set up for social distance with most live music, so providing entertainment, not only to draw in customers but to continue to support our music community, will be challenging,” she said. “We hope to survive as a bar and start integrating our musical format as time, law and safety allow.”

Dusk will be updating their Facebook page regularly as their plans take shape.

None of the three clubs received any state or federal assistance; Nick-A-Nee’s didn’t apply because of “limited payroll and the lack of transparency in the PPP,” while The Parlour did apply for grants and loans but received no aid.

Like most small businesses during this time, your local venues need your help as they try to reopen. Hopefully, imagining your favorite venues shuttered gives you more than enough motivation. Yes, things will be different, but after more than three months with no live music, I’m certainly excited to give it a try.

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