Inside One Music Venue's Frustrating Attempt to Survive In a Virus Epicenter (Guest Column)

The Crowbar
Michael Sinclair

The Crowbar in Tampa, Florida welcomed local artists to their stage for the audience-free Road to Reopen shows this summer.

Tampa’s Ybor City, similar to Austin’s Red River District or New Orleans’ French Quarter is a community filled entirely of independently owned restaurants, bars, retail shops and concert venues. Crowbar, opened in 2006, is a 300-person venue with an outdoor beer garden. Over our 14-year existence, we have hosted all types of music, from Grammy-winning artists like Snarky Puppy, to secret shows with artists like Underoath, to comedy acts such as Brian Posehn. Our weekly hip-hop night Old Dirty Sundays has hosted Talib Kweli, Z-Trip, Tony Touch and hundreds more.

We created a versatile space that welcomes all types of entertainment and all types of people. The first 10 years were always a struggle to make money and book shows. I finally knew I created something special when bands started telling me that their Crowbar tour date was the one they looked forward to the most.  

On March 17, my whole world changed. The governor ordered all bars to shutter until further notice. In this first week of closure, the 84 concerts on my spring calendar disappeared in the blink of an eye, resulting in a revenue loss of over $250,000. Over the next couple of weeks, the remaining shows for 2020 evaporated.

On April 1, our state entered quarantine life. During this time, I felt helpless. I tried to stay involved, to do what I could to control my own fate. I joined the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) and shortly after was asked to serve as Florida Precinct Captain. Through NIVA, I spent many hours lobbying state politicians for additional support for our independent ticketed venues. Locally, I inserted myself in city conversations, collaborating with our mayor and other city leaders to ensure a safe reopening. I became a voice for our community’s small businesses by doing podcasts, radio and TV interviews, and speaking at City Council meetings. With the help of our accountant, my wife and I quickly applied for every form of assistance that was being offered, including taking out personal loans. After all this, Crowbar was given a $19,500 grant and additional interest-accruing loans. That money went to payroll for my staff for two months and one month of rent. It costs me $15,000 a month to stay closed. That’s without all the money I spent making changes to the venue to improve it and make it safer.

During quarantine, restaurants were allowed to offer take out. Many restaurants started finding ways to skirt the rules by offering take out to stay, allowing customers to eat and drink on their property. None of these limitations on restaurants were enforced. By May 4, Florida entered phase 1 of its reopening plan with restaurants allowed to open at 25% capacity inside and 50% outside -- all seated. In an attempt to support this reopening, the City of Tampa provided Ybor City restaurants with outdoor seating and umbrellas, shutting down our central street to allow for the restaurants to serve more patrons.

But some of these businesses were taking advantage of their situation. Restaurants started having bands play at ground level on the street within close proximity to customers, inside and outside customers were standing rather than seated, and capacity limitations became increasingly ignored.

I began voicing concerns to city officials about the obvious lack of enforcement, arguing it was going to lead to more cases and, eventually, my inability to open my business safely. I pleaded with my fellow businesses to follow the rules and was met with resistance. Businesses needed to make money however they could. What was more alarming was hearing this same pattern in other areas of the country through my NIVA connections. Since Crowbar was closed during phase 1, I paid my employees and we got to work making our room safe and ready for customers. We deep-cleaned the space, removed a section of the dance floor to allow for more tables and chairs, installed sanitizing stations throughout the room, repainted our bathrooms, installed hospital-grade air purifiers in the HVAC system, purchased touch-free thermometers and moved to a cashless entry system. I knew I had to make changes to ensure my customers were safe, so I planned to transition from a concert venue to a seated listening room with limited customers attending live while streaming to masses at home. Because Crowbar has a smaller capacity, as well as an open-air beer garden, this model was feasible for us to make our new margins.

On June 3, Florida entered phase 2, allowing bars to reopen. I chose to set a June 20 opening date to make sure I could open safely. During this time, COVID cases continued to rise in Florida. I continued to contact city officials about the lack of enforcement that was visible throughout the city. On our opening day, I found out that one of my employees was in contact with someone that tested positive. I made the agonizing decision that there was no way I could go through with our reopening knowing that it may put someone at risk. My entire staff and I got tested (all coming back negative), we regrouped and set a new date of July 9. But on June 26, our governor announced that bars could no longer serve alcohol or allow consumption of alcohol on their premises. With this new change, I made the decision to stream my reopening and use the event in an empty room as a public service announcement. My goal was to show the public how live music events can be done responsibly.

The current reality is that restaurants are now serving in the role of bars, as they can continue to sell alcohol; amusement parks are open; and our city and county officials have made the 2021 Super Bowl plans a priority. Florida is no different than what is being seen in other parts of the country. In Nashville, Kid Rock’s Big Ass Honky Tonk RocknRoll Steakhouse packed crowds of thousands for weeks until they were finally shut down, while the small, independently-owned EXIT/IN is still shuttered. Events like the Chase Rice concert show us how people are not following social distancing guidelines or wearing masks yet my doors are shut. Large gatherings are happening all around the country that are irresponsible. Apparently, if you have the right kind of backing or enough money, things can somehow be considered safe when we know they are not.

I believe live music is essential. The industry that I love is being abandoned and stigmatized by our government. Crowbar’s event calendar is empty through May 2021. NIVA’s tag lines are Save Our Stages and First to Close, Last to Open. My heart breaks to think that if this continues the tagline will be shortened to “First to Close.” Our only hope for survival is for Congress to pass the Save Our Stages Act and/or RESTART America Act before they leave for their August recess. Without that, there will be a collapse of the industry as we know it.

Tom DeGeorge is co-owner of Crowbar in Tampa.

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