Things are changing rapidly as we approach the two-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic. Cities like D.C. and Philadelphia have announced that they are ending or easing their mask and vaccine mandates. Music festivals like Coachella and Stagecoach say they are dropping all COVID-safety barriers to entry. And just last week, Governor Kathy Hochul announced that New York was lifting its mask mandate for businesses and indoor spaces.

For the most part, New York City is continuing to err on the side of caution and has not lifted city-specific mandates. Cases are decreasing after the winter omicron surge but the pandemic is not over, with the Health Department now reporting about as many cases per day as there were in late November. However, even the most cautious New Yorkers are eager to go out once again and resume some of their pre-pandemic activities.

Nightlife and music venues around NYC are now grappling with how best to welcome back the eager crowds, finding ways to strike a balance between pandemic exhaustion and the safety of their staff and patrons. If there's anything that unites these club managers and owners, it's a mix of caution and anticipation, born of experience.

“The CDC is not in agreement [with the states] that we're ready to take off our masks and be in public, so who am I to know what's right,” said Michael Dorf, founder and CEO of City Winery. Dorf has been in the unique position of trying to launch a major new project — he opened the new flagship location of his multi-city venue at Hudson River Park’s Pier 57 in October of 2020 — in the midst of the pandemic. His attempts to safely draw audiences out has led him to try out various tactics, including free on-site rapid testing.

“I can tell you one thing: I'm sick of it all, we're all tired of it,” he said. “We've all grown exhausted by all this stuff. Financially, this doesn't help. I don't want to do anything to turn a single person away. All I want to do is sell wine and put on music. It's all I really care about and all this is a pain in the ass. But I'm just trying to keep my staff and patrons and the artists as safe as possible.”

Ches Smith, Craig Taborn, Mat Maneri, and Bill Frisell at Roulette, May 21st, 2021.

Unmasking the venues

Technically, no venue in NYC was mandated to require people to be masked up this winter, even at the height of the surge. Although the state had a mask mandate for all indoor businesses, it was superseded by the NY HERO Act and the Key To NYC Pass. The former states that masks are required in all indoor spaces except where “all individuals on premise, including but not limited to employees, are fully vaccinated.” The latter requires that restaurants and entertainment venues ask for proof of vaccination to enter.

Of course, even for venue owners and managers who have been navigating the ever-shifting COVID rules of the city and state — whither the color-coded zones? — it has remained an arduous task sifting through the various edicts.

“I think that confusion is a direct result of having different rules for different parts of the city and the state and for different types of venues. If there was just one blanket rule across the state, we wouldn't be having so much confusion,” said Kambri Crews, owner of Q.E.D. Astoria, a Queens community space which hosts comedy performances, screenings, political events and more. “It gets bogged down and confused. And then people use that confusion as willful ignorance to just do what they want.”

Deborah Gordon, who owns the legendary jazz club Village Vanguard, added, “Who can keep track of what they're requiring, and not requiring, you know? In a way, I find it very hard to pay attention to it, especially when they make pronouncements that go into effect that day or the next day.”

Despite all this, many places actively chose to ask people to mask up when entering, which has yielded mixed results.

“You have to wear masks inside until you get to your table, and then, while you're eating and drinking, of course we're not requiring it,” said Dorf. “If there's somebody who's sitting at a table and they're not actively eating, they're drinking, we're not going over to the table [to say], ‘Excuse me sir, I want to be a big asshole here and remind you, you got to put on a mask.’ We believe our customers are mature, and we respect them.”

A consensus has begun to form in the industry around masks: as effective as they might be, it is just not plausible for venues to enforce any mask policies once people are inside.

“Some venues really feel like they want to be seen as diligent, and they want their staff to be mindful of being diligent, so the masks are part of that,” said Jen Lyon, co-chair of the New York Independent Venue Association (NYIVA), which represents over 200 venues, independent promoters and festivals in the state. “But as far as getting guests to wear masks, the general consensus is it's nearly impossible and would cost too much in staffing to get people to wear masks.”

Gordon, who took over running the Village Vanguard in 2018 after the passing of her mother Lorraine Gordon, said the Vanguard staff tries to encourage people to wear masks whenever possible, but there isn’t a lot to do beyond that. “Certainly some musicians ask people to be polite and cognizant and aware, sometimes musicians will announce that from the stage,” she said. “But we haven't really been able to enforce that, we haven’t been the mask police…Anyway, what am I supposed to do, go around to every person after they have a sip of their drink, say you’ve got to put your mask back on? I mean, it's just not feasible.”

After Hochul ended the state-wide mask mandate, NYC released their own FAQ to try to lay out all the various scenarios for business owners, noting they “strongly recommend'' that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear a mask at public indoor settings, even when it’s not required. That’s the attitude that Jamie Burns, managing director of Boerum Hill experimental-music venue Roulette, has tried to take.

“Essentially, we’re asking people to wear masks but not making it a requirement to the extent that we would ask people to leave, or make people leave if they weren't wearing them,” she said. She argues it isn’t reasonable to expect venues like theirs to shoulder the burden of regulating face coverings: “We don't have security or bouncers. We have front of house staff, box office staff, bartenders and liaisons, and they're not equipped to be policing it.”

Village Vanguard

John Skelson

Vaccination sprinkler systems

While there is some amount of consensus around the futility of mask policing, opinions are more split on the value of continuing to mandate that spaces check vaccination status. (About 75% of New York’s population is fully vaccinated.)

Doreen Cugno, president and CEO of The St. George Theater on Staten Island, said they’ve seen much lower attendance in recent months, compounded by the winter COVID spikes and the mandate.

“We’ve seen at least a 30% to 50% drop in sales from past years for the same types of performances,” she said. “We believe it’s the Key To NYC, proof of vaccination upon entrance mandate, that is holding back many folks from patronizing the St. George.” If the city dropped the vaccine mandate, they would eagerly follow suit.

Crews, who runs Q.E.D., isn’t sure if the vaccination mandate is useful anymore either, despite the fact she thinks getting vaccinated is the smart thing to do. “I know for sure that there are definitely some comedians who have fake vaccine cards, and if there are a few comedians who have [them], there are other civilians [as well]. So if people wanted the vaccine by now they would have gotten it.”

For a place like the Village Vanguard, the vaccine mandate seems to have added an extra layer of security for patrons. “We want people to feel as safe and comfortable in here as they possibly can, in a basement room that is very small and intimate,” said owner Gordon. “I think it just makes everybody feel a little safer in the space.”

The Vanguard has made other adjustments as well. They’ve installed a new air filtration system, and they willingly limit capacity (normally 123) by about 20% for every show so people can feel a little more comfortable not being crammed together.

Roulette, which has about twice the sitting capacity as the Vanguard and has also upgraded its air filtration system, favors continuing to ask for proof of vaccination, even if the city abandons the policy.

“It's sort of like we built a set of expectations and trust with the audience and the artists and with our staff about what they can expect when they're here,” said Burns, the club's managing director. “But it would be hard to enforce that for an extended period of time without the backing of the city because we’d get too far out of step with what patrons expect when they show up.”

Since the spring of 2021, they’ve aspired to be “not too far ahead and not too far behind where the official rules are on this” to keep those expectations in check. But at the end of the day, they’d choose to stay a bit conservative on dropping any safety measure.

Dorf, who manages City Winery locations in eight states throughout the country, has had the added pressure of trying to formulate and maintain consistent rules for each space despite incredibly disparate, and sometimes contradictory, local laws.

“In Nashville, they outlawed us from having mandates early on, and we just ignored it, and in Atlanta, [there were] lots of disagreements between the state and city government," he said. "So we just ignored it all, and just live by what we felt was the safest protocols."

He compared the concept of best COVID practices to any other safety measures a club would take. “We’ve got to make sure that our exits work, our emergency lights work, that our sprinkler systems work, that all of our safety procedures are in place,” he said. “And if all of a sudden there's a new administration that came in and said, ‘Hey, you don't need fire suppression systems anymore,’ or “We just don't think it's needed, it's too costly,’ I would ignore that.”

A representative for AEG Presents and Bowery Presents, which manages bookings at mid-to-large venues such as Forest Hills Stadium, Terminal 5, Webster Hall, Brooklyn Steel, Music Hall of Williamsburg and more, said they weren’t ready to make a statement yet on forthcoming policies, but indicated that they were following local mandates — or the easing thereof — to guide their next steps.

Saving our stages

As much as COVID equalized the playing field for everyone, with venues of every size facing the same restrictions and shutdowns, the reality of grappling with the financial hardships of the pandemic are far different for a multinational company than for the many independent venues across the city and state.

Even with the slow easing of restrictions, that isn’t a guarantee that concertgoers will be back, or that bands aren’t facing setbacks because of people getting sick.

“I think we're still seeing a lot of no shows, a lot of reduced tickets, tours and shows being canceled, a lot of hesitation for regular programming,” said Lyon, who in addition to working with NYIVA also heads MeanRed Productions. Being under constant financial strains, she offered, is the “new normal now.”

Although Congress passed the $16.1 billion Save Our Stages Act into law last year, there were problems with the distribution of those funds, including the fact nonprofits got less than for profits. While many other cities and states around the country have given money to help buffer their music and nightlife industries during this unstable period, New York hasn’t.

According to a November 2021 survey of NYIVA members, there’s been a decline of over 50% in ticket sales since reopening began in June 2021, in comparison with 2019 — and that survey was done before the omicron surge. During the state-mandated closures, independent NY venues incurred a collective net loss of $15 million per month.

This week, NYIVA members testified before the state legislature to ask for relief funds, including the creation of a “$150 million, three-year stabilization fund, open to both for-profit and nonprofit live performing arts venues and promoters.”

“We were closed for 15 months, we had no way to make money, we can't do carryout or whatever,” Lyon said. “Tours have been so inconsistent — Live Nation/AEG got all the tours and we haven't as independent venues. So we're really trying to find a path for support. We're still very much struggling.”

John Hiatt performing at City Winery

A new hope

One thing every venue owner seems to agree on: There is no magical light switch one can flick to make people feel more comfortable venturing out into crowded settings again. The way we socialize has become unmoored from physical spaces, and the forums in which we experience art have shifted, and that likely isn’t going to change in a few days or a few months.

“Intellectually, you're going to accept something long before you do it emotionally,” said Roulette co-founder Jim Staley. “And it's just going to take awhile before people fully emotionally forget the experience they've gone through and feel free to go wherever and see whatever and be in crowds…it's just going to take a while, I think, for everybody to feel free, long after the restrictions are lifted.”

Roulette has focused on finding alternative ways to keep their audience engaged, as with their popular ongoing live streamed shows. These online events enabled them to re-hire all the staff that had been furloughed at the onset of the pandemic, as well as continue to pay artists guaranteed fees, regardless of audience turnout or box office revenue. When Roulette reopened for in-person performances at the start of February, there was another good sign: pre-sales were worryingly slow, but tons of people started showing up at the door. And for now, the livestreams will continue to serve audience members unready or unable to attend.

“I think we have a little PTSD from feeling like this a couple times in the past, but I do feel like we have turned a corner,” said Burns, Roulette’s managing director. The omicron surge may not be the final setback, but she noted, “I think everyone is in a similar position where they're feeling safer, feeling optimistic. But also, it's been hard to plan too far in the future for so long now that I think everyone is just a little bit cautious about celebrating too soon.”

Planning ahead hasn’t been the biggest problem for the Village Vanguard. Because they were closed for such a long period of time — almost a year and a half in total — they had tons of musicians who were knocked out of their dates. They are now booked up for most of the next year.

Gordon, the Vanguard owner, hasn’t gotten COVID, and says she’s ”starting to maybe become a little less fearful” of getting it, and of what lies ahead in the historic club’s future. “As it seems to morph into more of a flu-like, endemic situation, my fear of it diminishes in response to that,” she said. “But I still feel very responsible to keep as safe an environment in the Vanguard as I possibly can. That's my number one commitment to everybody here, the musicians, staff, and audience. And I think people feel that in here — they seem to feel relaxed, and happy to be able to hear some live music again.”

City Winery is also booking like crazy right now. “There's still lingering tours that got reshuffled and private parties that are moving, but I think we're going to be back to packed houses nightly, sometime in the middle of March, literally 30 days from now,” said owner Dorf.

“Everyone wants to get back together with people they love,” he added. “Everyone's talking about the roaring ‘20s, we'll see. There's no question people want to make up for some lost time, but there's only so many drinks you can consume in a night.”

A feeling of unexpected hopefulness has also affected Crews, the owner of Q.E.D. Astoria. She spent part of the pandemic being treated for skin cancer while also trying to keep her business alive, which has given her a broader perspective on being in public. “I've been riding the subway and working behind the counter and running shows and being out, and I'm a cancer patient,” she said. “Of course bad things will happen to people, they always do. But I think it's okay for us to start finding joy again and going out and participating in life and our communities.”