The latest iteration of Gov. Kay Ivey’s Safer at Home order lifts hard-and-fast capacity limits on entertainment venues, but hold off on plans to rush the stage: Early reaction suggests that many venues won’t immediately cast aside COVID-19 plans they fought hard to develop.
On Thursday Ivey issued an updated order that, among other things, extends a statewide face mask mandate through Dec. 11. The full text of the order can be found at governor.alabama.gov.
Celia Baehr, President at CEO of the Mobile Symphony Orchestra, said Thursday afternoon that she was studying the order but didn’t see it as the impetus for sudden change. While the order does lift capacity limits on venues, it still requires social distancing. Employees “shall not knowingly allow patrons or guests to congregate within six feet of a person from another household” and “shall take reasonable steps to prevent people from congregating in lobby areas, break rooms, and other common areas.”
In the absence of a formal capacity limit, social distancing still reduces capacity, and “that takes us right back to where we are,” said Baehr.
It does, at least, leave it up to the venue or concert organizers to decide what the limit is. The MSO didn’t play around with its COVID-19 plan: For its first concerts since the start of the pandemic, it dropped the capacity of the Mobile Saenger Theatre from more than 1,900 down to 400, well below the 50% threshold set by the state. So you’d think they might be hungry to bump it up a little.
Not so. Baehr said the MSO will stick with the same 400-seat limit (and a 30-player limit for musicians on stage), because it represents safety for patrons, staff and musicians.
“I think our audience, after the first shows, they were really comfortable with what we were doing, and I don’t foresee changing it right now,” Baehr said.
That means the same 400-seat limit and other precautions will be in place for the “Beethoven and Blue Jeans” concerts coming up Nov. 14-15. Baehr said that’ll also be the case at Christmas-season shows on Dec. 12-13 “unless miraculously the virus disappears.”
“I think we’ll probably go with what we’ve got,” she said. “At the end of the day we’re not willing to take the risk with our staff, our musicians and our patrons' health.”
The logic is much the same at one of the city’s smallest venues, The People’s Room. Proprietor Jim Pennington was among the first in Mobile to begin presenting live concerts, reopening in June after the initial shutdown. Maximum capacity is a mere 60 and the 50% rule has dropped that to 30, so it seems like a few more seats would make a big difference.
But again, Pennington said the status quo basically represents a contract between an operator willing to present shows and listeners willing to come out for them.
“I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing right now,” Pennington said.
“There’s a lot of people who used to go out who are sitting at home” because of coronavirus concerns, Pennington said, and he respects that.
“The people who have supported me for the last few months come out because they’re comfortable with what I’m doing,” said Pennington. He figures he owes it to them to keep things that way.
With the cap at 30 people, he has averaged about 20 listeners per show. That may not sound like much, but it has meant paydays for songwriters who’ve found them scarce. “And I’m not having to do a GoFundMe to pay the rent,” Pennington said.
The People’s Room is an outlier: Pennington has a day job, so his little venue can sustain itself on a small margin. But what about a bigger mainline venue like Soul Kitchen Music Hall, where the old order of business as usual depended on packing in hundreds of people as often as possible?
It’s been a long and very cautious road back into action for Soul Kitchen, one of the anchors of the Dauphin Street entertainment scene. After two or three shows in the summer, it has only now begun to put together anything like a regular schedule. Co-owner Maggie Smith Eynon said that the Marcus King Band sold about 550 tickets last week and could have sold 1,000 -- but 550 represents half the rated capacity, and that’s what the venue is sticking with at least through year’s end.
Half capacity means there’s plenty of room for patrons find the level of social distancing they want, she said. But she added that there’s yet another factor in play: Artists and their managers also have a say in how big a gathering they’re comfortable with. When Samantha Fish brings her vocal and guitar talents to Soul Kitchen this Saturday, the cap will be more like 33% -- because that’s the way Fish wanted it, Eynon said.
It’s unlikely that full capacity, in the pre-COVID sense, will be on the table anytime soon, she said. Maybe going into 2021, if the spread of the virus seems to be in check, venues and bands and listeners will gradually become comfortable with a new normal that looks more like the old normal.
But that’ll be negotiated one show at a time. State-mandated capacity limits may have gone away, but the need to strike a balance hasn’t.
“Ours is kind of a week-by-week call,” she said.