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Theaters, arenas remain optimistic in safe re-openings post-pandemic closures

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The Kalamazoo State Theater, pictured Tuesday, June 16, 2020, is closed for the summer. Theater managers say they have no intention of closing permanently due to revenue loss from COVID-19, but they stand with many others who could if they don't receive federal funding. (WWMT/Jason Heeres)

More than four months since coronavirus disease 2019 forced the closures of many businesses and industries, including restaurants, bars, shops and schools, many live performance venues remain closed to the public.

Staff behind the scenes, however, have been anything but silent.

While venues remained dark and empty into the summer of 2020, staff at West Michigan's theaters and concert halls continued working and planning for the day they would be able to once again raise the curtain and show guests to their seats.

Managers said most of that planning involves safety.

"Our top priority is always the health and safety of our employees and our audience," Barn Theatre owner Penelope Alex Ragotzy said.

Installing air purifiers, social distancing in ticketing lines, and giving audience and staff masks are just some of the many options venues, big and small, are considering right now.

"A lot of guidelines will come into play and we will all be privy to that information and we will be following all of those mandates. What that looks like, we don't know yet," Ragotzy said.

When live venues are allowed to reopen to the public, managers said audience members should expect a different experience than what they might be use to prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the past, guests would have expected to sit close to each other, nearly shoulder to shoulder. Now, guests should expect to be spaced out, possibly with empty seats separating them at least six feet from other patrons.

Ragotzy, said at her venue, the Barn Theatre, guests who arrive together, such as couples or families, can sit together.

At the State Theatre in Kalamazoo, managers said they already had many health and safety protocols in place, so they expect a relatively smooth transition into accommodating the public after COVID-19 became a pandemic. But, they said, they will continue to monitor the situation and add new safety protocols as needed.

Many venues were also not cancelling shows. Instead, they're just postponing them.

"We are a summer theater. We have the luxury of pushing into the fall should things be backed up a little bit more," Ragotzy said.

"What we've not done yet is certainly cancel our season. So we are not in that place of you're not going to see us; here's what we're going to do instead. We're not thinking in those terms until we absolutely have to," Ragotzy said. "We are definitely thinking outside the box to bring people entertainment."

Right now a lot of live venues are showing entertainment digitally online and staying connected with fans through social media.

Rich MacKeigan is the regional general manager for ASM Global in Grand Rapids, the firm in charge of Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place and the DeVos Performance Hall. MacKeigan said he and his staff keep in contact with fans, artists and various levels of government to stay on top of information.

"We've been very involved in conversations with promoters agents managers, with artists even; as well as with peers," MacKeigan said.

MacKeigan said guests at the ASM Global venues in West Michigan will be safe when they are allowed to attend live shows again.

"Whatever equipment or practices or policies are deemed best and safest will be available to the venues here in West Michigan; and that is with absolute certainty," MacKeigan said. "I think we have never been better positioned to demonstrate the strength as far as conveying to the fans of West Michigan that these venues when they reopen will be reopened as safe as possible."

Harry Phillips, the director of marketing and development for the Kalamazoo State Theatre, said the entertainment protocol for the venue has shifted from the real stage to the virtual stage.

"One thing that we feel is really important is continuing to support the arts and continuing to be a part of this community," Phillips said. "The State Theatre has been in Kalamazoo since 1927, providing entertainment, and we want to keep doing that."

West Michigan live performance venues joined a long list of other venues across the country that were also forced to close to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A recent survey shows that 90 percent of independent venue owners, promoters and bookers said they would have to close permanently within the next few months if they can't get an infusion of targeted government funding. The survey of nearly 2,000 music professionals was conducted by the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA), a recently established advocacy group for music venue owners and promoters. Its members include The Bowery Ballroom in New York City, Troubador in Los Angeles, and Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Despite the risks, local theater owners and managers remain optimistic.

"We have survived many, many decades, and we've gone through a lot," Ragotzy said. "We will keep our revenue stream diversified and really try to keep it going."

"For artists, it's not just about going out and playing the show and getting the check and getting paid," Phillips said. "They love the creative outlet and they love interacting and sharing their art with people. And so how great it is that we can highlight them through some livestreams. But hopefully we can slowly phase back into all getting together and enjoying in person."

In May, local tourism officials and theater managers shared additional insights on safety measures during the pandemic as venues prepare to re-open once Gov. Gretchen Whitmer provides the approval.

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