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Festivals, concerts and other gatherings in flux

Re-enactors fire muskets during the Whiskey Rebellion Festival in Washington, Pa., in July 2019. The annual festival was canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Mike Jones)

As the nation approaches its summer months, the threat of festivals, concerts and events being canceled as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak is imminent. Though some states are beginning to enter into the first stages of their reopening plans, the immediate future for live entertainment is murky at best.

John Healey, the Executive Theater Manager at the Weinberg Center for the Arts in Frederick, Maryland, said while the state might be opening slowly in the coming weeks, the days of seeing a show in an entertainment venue with maximum spectators is still a ways away.

“I’m hearing December at the earliest for full capacity,” he said, “and as far out as 2023 for Broadway to reopen. Until there’s a vaccine, you’re not going to have people feel safe. Even once you say, ‘OK, we’re going to come back now,’ it’s going to take a while for people to say, ‘I feel safe enough to buy a ticket and sit next to 1,000 people.'”

In the meantime, he said the staff at the theater, which can host a little more than 1,100 patrons, has been exploring virtual options for programming until it’s safe to open back up. He also said they are exploring the possibility of limited-seating events — an approach that would allow the venue to seat 293 people.

Another big hit to the entertainment world in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia came when one of the nation’s most prestigious theater festivals, the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, announced its plans to nix the 2020 gathering. The event, which is responsible for a large chunk of the West Virginia town’s yearly tourist dollars, will return in 2021, according its founder, Ed Herendeen.

The re-enactment of a tarring and feathering drew a large crowd during the Whiskey Rebellion Festival in Washington, Pa., last year. The annual summer festival was canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by Mike Jones)

“We are not canceling it, we are not postponing it, we are rescheduling it,” Herendeen said. “Due to an abundance of caution, we believe in keeping our staff, community and patrons safe during these uncertain times, and we also believe in the health and safety of these artists.

“I think it’s the only decision we could have made,” he concluded.

WEST VIRGINIA

As concern about and cases of the coronavirus spread, venues around West Virginia canceled or rescheduled events from country concerts featuring Gary Allan and Trace Adkins to musical productions like “An American in Paris.”

In Parkersburg, the first two performances of the popular Point Park Concert Series – which brings tribute acts to the amphitheater on the Ohio River – have been canceled. The Actors Guild of Parkersburg community theater group postponed its productions of “The Producers,” “Hallelujah Girls” and “Rock of Ages,” with no new dates set.

Parkersburg’s historic Smoot Theatre was set to close out its season on April 17 with the musical “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.” It has since been rescheduled for Oct. 31, with the 2020-21 season now pushed back to November rather than its usual August or September start, said Felice Jorgeson, theater director.

“We don’t know when we can even open,” she said. “Who wants to sit that close to other people?”

As one season comes to a close, the mostly volunteer-run theater’s cash level often gets low while season passes and donations are solicited.

“So the checks come in the mail, and the bank account gets full again,” Jorgeson said. “Our season patrons are our lifeblood.”

The Clay Center for the Arts & Sciences in Charleston encompasses a children’s museum, art museum and performance hall. It’s been closed since mid-March, with the mission to bring access to the arts and sciences shifting online with educational activities and virtual performances by local artists, said Morgan Robinson, vice president of marketing and sales for the center.

A number of performances were moved from spring to summer, but as restrictions have been slow to lift, the schedule is changing again. Some activities may resume in the fall, but potentially bigger draws are being pushed back even further.

Three Dog Night was set to take the stage April 23 and has since been rescheduled to July 3. But even as the band — whose hits include “Joy to the World” and “Mama Told Me (Not to Come)” — expected to fill the Maier Foundation Performance Hall to its near-1,800-seat capacity, “it’s looking like that’s going to be moved to 2021,” Robinson said.

OHIO

In Marietta, Ohio, sits a building that’s more than 100 years old — the People’s Bank Theatre. The historic theatre was reopened in 2016 after 15 years of fundraising to restore the building back to its former glory.

Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, however, the theatre is temporarily closed and all events have been rescheduled.

Executive director Hunt Brawley said they were fortunate to be able to reschedule artist performances. He said the theatre is looking at different options and ideas to bring their entertainment to the public.

“We’re looking at ways to do something that may not be part of the normal repertoire, anything from a live stream event from our stage or a partial audience,” Brawley said. “We’ve talked about a number of events within the theatre that we can do — maybe that’s with limited numbers, not our full capacity.”

He added that organizers have also discussed staging outside events or fundraisers to help generate revenue.

Brawley then said that they hope their closure doesn’t extend much longer and he’s hoping for guidance from Ohio’s governor, Mike DeWine.

“I think a lot of us [in the theatre industry] realize we’re going to be the last [to open],” he said. “We’re a meeting space, close proximity with large numbers of people. We’re just kind of hoping for the best, but I try to keep things moving forward.”

He said how the theatre will open depends on the state’s guidelines and how the theatre’s board feels about reopening.

“We’ll be paying close attention to those guidelines, and we would probably have to take additional safety measures based on guidelines,” Brawley said. “A large part is dependent on how the artists feel as well. Frankly, they’ve got to make the decision. I think we’re all trying to act on the best information we have.”

Brawley said he’s hoping for better news soon and that he and the theatre’s artists are anxious to get back to work.

“The theatre received some recovery money and without that, we’d probably be taking more drastic measures,” he said. “We’re not any different from other small businesses.”

Brawley suggested that people check out the theatre’s website for more updates about rescheduling and he hopes to develop live stream events in the coming weeks.

“What makes a live entertainment venue what it is — it’s a spontaneous event that you can’t duplicate,” Brawley said. “We’re hoping things turn for the better.”

MICHIGAN

In Alpena, Mich., many popular summer events have been canceled, scaled back or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Maritime Festival, one of the city’s biggest annual events occurring during the Fourth of July week, was recently canceled.

Other area events that have been scrapped include the Rogers City Nautical Festival, the Long Lake Lights Festival, and the Posen Potato Festival. The Michigan Brown Trout Festival in Alpena is still set for July but has been scaled back. The Alpena Blues Festival that had been set for June 20 has been postponed until the fall.

Alpena Mayor Matt Waligora said the impact of the cancellations and postponements will not go unnoticed by local stores, restaurants and hotels that depend on the tourism season to keep their businesses thriving.

“I expect, and I think most people do, that it will be more than noticeable,” Waligora said of the impact. “I would expect that it would be a pretty substantial economic impact to us.”

He said the effects will be immediate and far-reaching.

“You’re talking about an effect on every storefront, every restaurant, every party store, every hotel or B&B or rental of any kind,” he said. “Those events stretch really far. And then you take that money, the money that comes in from other areas, and it’s spent here, and then our local business owners, they in turn spend that money somewhere else.”

He explained that if those business owners make a summer profit, they may spend it on new equipment or a new car purchased within the community.

“So that trickle-down effect is going to affect everyone,” Waligora said. “And that’s really unfortunate. How long this lasts is really going to affect the economy for many years to come.”

In Northern Michigan, area businesses make the most profit in the warmer months, so it will be hard to gauge the total impact of the pandemic until those months are in full swing.

“Most people understand that human health is the top priority and do not argue with the orders,” said Mary Beth Stutzman, president and CEO of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “However, the impact to the economy is also a concern and it may be a few months before a full damage report is realized.”

Waligora said not knowing when the end may come is really a detriment to community leaders and business owners. He attributes the delay in part to infighting amongst Republican and Democratic leaders.

“When I think about how long this is going to last, and when we can start seeing this turn around, my answer is when the infighting stops at the state and federal level,” Waligora said. “Until they stop saying ‘Republican’ and ‘Democrat’ and start saying ‘What’s best for the State of Michigan,’ this will last way longer than it should.”

Waligora is looking forward to finding creative ways to allow people to have summer fun even without all the usual events, within the boundaries of social distancing.

“I would expect that there will still be a considerable amount of people coming and spending their summers here, as we normally may have seen, but without the major festivals, I’m going to do my best to support everything that’s at a smaller scale, that we’re allowed to support,” Waligora said. “City government is all about getting out of the way and trying to help things happen.”

PENNSYLVANIA

In Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, the popular outdoor concert venue S&T Bank Music Park has three scheduled concerts in mid-June that have yet to be canceled or postponed. They include bands like Maroon 5, Megadeth and Nickelback. The venue posted Monday that it’s working with artists to bring ticket holders the most updated information as quickly as possible.

The venue operates through Live Nation, which has rescheduled some of its summer concerts, like one featuring the Dave Matthews Band, at the pavilion to next year. Live Nation announced it would honor already purchased tickets for the new date of that show or consider requests for refunds.

The venue posted on its Facebook page last month about Live Nation’s “Ticket Relief Plan,” which includes refund options if a show is canceled or postponed due to the pandemic.

“We know how important live events are to each of you and we thank you for your patience as we all continue to work through these unprecedented times together,” the Live Nation post read. “For everyone missing concerts as much as we are, just know we will be here ready to start the show, when we can all experience the magic of live music together again.”

Other events in Washington County, Pennsylvania, are in limbo as well. The Monongahela Aquatorium hosts festivals, parties and concerts throughout the season, but this time around things continue to be up in the air.

“We haven’t made any decisions,” said Claudia Williams, who’s on the board of directors for the nonprofit venue, owned by the City of Monongahela. “We have bookings pending, but we haven’t cancelled or confirmed them.”

Other major summer festivals, events and parades — such as its first-ever Pride Festival and its annual Whiskey Rebellion Festival — have had to be canceled in Washington County. The Whiskey Rebellion is a four-day celebration of Washington’s history. It brings large crowds each year, but this year the festival’s committee decided to cancel it out of caution amid the pandemic.

“We felt that although it’s a difficult decision, it absolutely had to be made that way,” said festival co-chair Joseph Piszczor. “We are going to try to have some activities virtually to keep the celebration alive. These events, especially the Whiskey Rebellion, give our community a lot of opportunity to connect and engage with each other.”

Washington Mayor Scott Putnam said that while he understands the decision, canceling the popular festival will be “a crushing blow to the city and local economy.”

“The numbers are around 20,000 that come to our downtown,” he said.

KANSAS

For the last 12 years, buskers have flocked to Lawrence, Kan., to perform at the Lawrence Busker Festival, an annual “weekend of weirdness” that garners around 20,000 attendees.

Crowds come to see buskers from around the world who perform skills such as acrobatic juggling, balancing acts and feats of strength. Mama Lou Strong Woman, a festival favorite, can rip phone books and smash apples in her biceps.

But this year, festival organizer Richard Renner has postponed the event from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend due to the COVID-19 outbreak — and he’s not even sure if the event will be able to take place then. While all the performances take place outdoors and in separate areas of Lawrence’s main street, Renner fears that come September, large crowds will still be unsafe and not allowed.

He also fears that despite the international buskers having acquired work visas, travel restrictions will remain in place and prevent some of the international acts from coming. The Lawrence Busker Festival isn’t something he organizes to make money; in fact, all the money he raises goes straight into the event. But it is something he puts on for entertainment of the attendees and the careers of the buskers, and as of right now, he’s not confident it’s going to happen.

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