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Aug. 1, 2021

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Seattle music venues get ready to rock again, with a few guidelines

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SEATTLE — Since the early days of the pandemic, back when we were quarantining our mail and wearing latex gloves to the grocery store, Seattle venue operators have warned that when concerts were allowed to resume, reopening clubs would not be as simple as turning on the lights.

With less than a month before Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide June 30 reopening date, music venue operators are working furiously behind the scenes to prepare — rehiring staff, booking and confirming shows and weighing health and safety protocols coming out of the pandemic. Coming less than two weeks after hints of a possible rollback, Inslee’s May 13 reopening announcement caught some venue operators by surprise — “like a bit of whiplash,” as Seattle Theatre Group’s Nate Dwyer described it — and in some cases, fast-forwarded their reopening plans.

After a long, dark year of debt accrual and zero rock ‘n’ roll, the return to full-capacity shows in just a few weeks’ time is being met with a mixture of jubilation and anxiety.

“This has been an exceptionally difficult period of time, so to get everybody back to work, get artists back in the space — I don’t think there are words to describe how nice it feels,” said Dwyer, STG’s chief operating officer.

“Yeah, and if I also didn’t say I’ve got a little bit of a shpilkes I wouldn’t be being truthful,” added STG’s Executive Director Josh LaBelle. “It’s exciting and also overwhelming. … I’ve never imagined going through anything like this before.”

Last week, the nonprofit arts promoter outlined plans for a July series of comeback shows at the U District’s Neptune Theatre. While the 1,000-capacity venue is the smallest of the three theaters under STG’s purview, the July 10 kickoff with Seattle hip-hop luminaries Sango, Dave B. and Stas THEE Boss is currently the largest full-capacity concert set at a local club since the lockdown began. STG’s larger Moore and Paramount theaters look to reopen in mid-August.

That first nonholiday weekend after coronavirus restrictions are set to lift could be a key bounce-back time for the city’s music industry. Ballard’s Tractor Tavern has a two-night stand with alt-country rockers the Moondoggies on July 9-10, and Benaroya Hall — one of a handful of Seattle venues that has already welcomed back limited crowds — has Heart’s Nancy Wilson playing a livestream concert with the Seattle Symphony July 9 in front of a small VIP audience.

Each venue’s slightly different approaches to audiences’ return foreshadows what will likely be a transitional summer, with clubs and theaters reopening at varying paces.

“It’s coming and not everybody’s on the same page,” said Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos and an organizer with the Washington Nightlife Music Association. “Nobody’s on the same page.”

With his midsized Capitol Hill club booking six months to a year out, Severin would have liked more communication from the governor’s office around reopening criteria and the timeline in order to start rehiring staff and booking shows after 15 dormant months. “We basically got a six-week window from when they said a club can be fully opened. … It’s a lot to get done, especially when so many of us are still dealing with [the Shuttered Venue Operators Grants],” he said, referring to the bungled delivery of long-awaited federal aid to beleaguered independent venue owners.

Word of Inslee’s June 30 reopening date abruptly shifted the timeline for clubs like Neumos and the Tractor, that are largely dependent on touring acts. With touring picking up more heavily in late August and September, Severin said, “everybody is refilling their calendars with local artists” during the summer. As a result, few clubs will come out firing with a full slate of shows.

“We were basically booking for September forward,” said Tractor Tavern owner Dan Cowan. “We still have holds but everybody’s juggling, trying to firm things up. For July and August we’re going to concentrate on as many local bands as we can and not try to book five nights a week — just get what comes and kind of roll into September.”

Still, a few Seattle venues — particularly sit-down joints that draw dinner-and-a-show crowds — are already getting started with reduced capacity, socially distanced shows with hopes of expanding ticket sales once Inslee gives the green light. Downtown bastion Jazz Alley hosts its first show in more than a year this Thursday (June 10), limiting attendance to 200 people — half its capacity, in accordance with current state guidelines. Jazz Alley publicist Rachael Millikan expects the club and restaurant’s summer calendar will be as busy as it would be in normal times. “We’re going to do our very best to be open Tuesday through Sunday,” she said.

Like Jazz Alley — which spent around $150,000 on HVAC upgrades, touchless faucets and other coronavirus-era updates — the Triple Door will return with half-capacity shows, starting with Washington singer-songwriter LeRoy Bell on June 18. At least initially, patrons will be required to wear masks when not eating or drinking. Through Labor Day, the Triple Door plans to only book weekend shows, releasing more tickets for each as capacity restrictions ease.

“If and when [Gov. Inslee] opens it up, which we all hope he does, it’d be great to open up more sales if demand is there,” said Triple Door talent buyer Scott Giampino. “Right now, quite honestly, there is demand. And we all knew that. People want to go out.”

As the number of full-capacity July shows is expected to grow in the coming weeks, it remains to be seen exactly what health and safety precautions venues might implement on the other side of the reopening date. Several club owners said they are still sorting it out, with some saying it was unclear if the state or King County might add any requirements beyond June 30. A spokesperson for the governor said updated guidance for businesses will be coming soon, but smaller event producers are unlikely to be affected.

“Unless the event is very large (i.e. thousands of people) the event venue can plan for no restrictions aside from the general mask mandate for unvaccinated individuals,” Mike Faulk, Inslee’s deputy communications director, said in an email.

Seattle Theatre Group is playing it safe in planning its July comeback run, having not seen anything in writing from the state or county about post-reopening requirements. Of the few venues to have announced full-capacity July dates, STG has detailed elaborate health and safety protocols. Fans must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test dated within 72 hours before showtime, and will pass through temperature-sensing cameras at the door. Mask-wearing will be required when fans are not drinking or eating and an unvaccinated section (or sections) will be created.

Per LaBelle, STG “will look so forward to lifting it all” once state and county officials articulate their event requirements (or lack thereof) from July on, though he stopped short of saying whether any changes would be made to STG’S July plans.

“We’re trying to show everyone grace, whether that’s patrons who are really concerned about coming into a big environment but really wanting to be here, the artists themselves, as well as our staff,” LaBelle said. “All of us are going to need to take the spirit of being welcoming and accepting, and doing our best for one another as we start back up.

“It is going to feel different,” he said. “And hopefully it’s not going to feel different for that much longer.”

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