Throughout the pandemic, California has been one of the most restrictive states in terms of resuming concerts. Audiences have not been allowed back to venues and live performances have been relegated to drive-ins and livestreams for more than a year. But the hastened rollout of vaccines and declining cases of COVID-19 have furthered the reopening progress and the easing of restrictions for music venues this month is a welcome advancement for California venues, but many say they are still unlikely to host concerts for months.
"At the end of the day a lot of this is really encouraging, but it doesn't work. It doesn't allow us to operate at full capacity, which just doesn't allow us to really produce concerts at this time," says Another Planet Entertainment production director Roger Picone who runs the 8,500-capacity Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California. Picone is also the co-founder of NIVA CA, a coalition of independent California venues.
According to Picone, it is not financially feasible to run the Greek Theatre for only 33% of patrons due to staffing and artists costs and adds that in the yellow tier (67% capacity), a show would still be in the red.
"There is a conversation happening, whereas before we were completely in the dark. So that is encouraging," Picone says of state guidelines for live events. "But our posture for the whole industry is, we do not operate unless we're at a 100% capacity. You're not going to see concert touring coming back until that happens."
Under the new guidelines released on April 2, indoor venues with a capacity of 1,501 or above and in the red tier can welcome fans back at 20% occupancy and COVID-19 testing or proof of vaccination is required. In both the orange and yellow tiers, the larger venues can welcome 10% or 2,000 people. If testing or proof of vaccination is required in the orange or yellow tiers, the capacities move up to 35% and 50%, respectively. Only outdoor events will be allowed in the most restrictive (purple) tier.
Indoor venues with a capacity of 1,500 or less will be allowed to host 10% or 100 people, 15% or 200 people, and 25% or 300 people in the red, orange and yellow tiers, respectively. If all guests are tested or show proof of full vaccination, those limits move up to 25%, 35%, and 50% in red, orange and yellow, respectively.
All shows regardless of venue size or county tier will have to require attendees to wear masks and have advanced ticketing to avoid congestion at the box office.
Raghav Desai, talent buyer for the 500-capacity Lodge Room in Los Angeles, says it's still hard to imagine shows under these limitations. Desai tells Billboard that producing a show at 25% would leave very little, if anything, to settle the artist guarantee and calls the enforcement of mask wearing, social distancing and vaccine verification "dicey."
"On a personal note, I'm still cautious, because these movements through the tiers is all happening so quickly. It almost feels like we're declaring a premature victory," says Desai. "The last thing I would want to happen is to have a reduced capacity concert which turns into a super spreader event."
A release from the California Dept. of Health states that the loosening of restrictions is based entirely on the declining cases and the nearly 20 million vaccines distributed. Then at a April 6 news conference, Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced that he foresees the state moving "beyond" the blueprint tier system and lifting all restrictions on businesses by June 15. Newsom only expects to keep the mask mandate and other "common-sense health measures" to remain in place.
While it may be difficult for concerts to resume before that tentative date, sporting events with live audiences have also been given the go-ahead and have ways to subsidize the cost of welcoming a limited number of fans back.
"We've seen major league sports being propped up by like broadcaster sponsorship, but it's not by capacity," says Picone. "Putting 10,000 people in a 50,000-person stadium is not economically viable without some of those other pillars of income."
Banc of California Stadium in Los Angeles is currently preparing to host its first home game for tenants Los Angeles FC on April 17 with a live audience. EVP of entertainment & development for the stadium, Ryan Northcutt, says they will host at least 17 home games for the MLS team this year before their announced concerts which include dates from Santana, Guns N' Roses and Maroon 5.
"We have the benefit of a team that is starting to play in less than two weeks," says Northcutt. "We are certainly thrilled that there is a path forward, but the rules and regulations are changing on the fly. We have a plan A, but there's also plans B through Z in anticipation of what could happen at the county or state level."
If cases stay low, many venues believe concerts can regularly resume around late summer or fall as artists are able to book dates, put shows on sale and implement reasonable safety measures as restrictions lift. Nationally-routed tours, however, will most likely see a major comeback in 2022.
"The 2022 calendar is massive. I've never been part of a calendar that is this stacked with holds this far out," says Northcutt. "2022 has the possibility of being one of those years where you sit back at the end of it and go, 'that was incredible.'"