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Music Venues, Theaters Keeping Doors Shut As City Reopens: ‘More Cost-Effective To Stay Closed’

Despite being allowed to reopen Friday, most concert venues and theaters are remaining closed. Here's why.

The Neo Futurists
The Neo Futurists
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CHICAGO — Movie theaters, zoos, restaurants and bars will be able to welcome customers again Friday.

But one sector that will not open its doors Friday — or anytime soon — is the live entertainment industry.

Phase 4 of the city’s reopening plan begins Friday. Along with indoor dining, summer camps and museums, “performance venues” are allowed to open, with the city outlining strict rules to keep customers and employees safe and prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Not many venues will take up the city’s offer, though.

Of Chicago’s music clubs and concert venues, only the Green Mill appears to be hosting live performances starting Friday. The city’s large concert venues, including The Chicago Theater, The Aragon Ballroom, Thalia Hall and Metro, have not announced plans to reopen.

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
The Green Mill in Uptown.

Theaters and other performing arts venues will remain closed, industry sources said.

Live entertainment has been among the hardest-hit industries during Chicago’s coronavirus pandemic. The economic shutdown has imperiled the industry, but business owners said conditions are not yet right to resume operations.

“It’s not like a bar — you can’t just turn the lights on,” said Robert Gomez, owner of Subterranean and Beat Kitchen, which will not host shows anytime soon. “It’s too complicated for us to responsibly consider opening at this point.”

Credit: Facebook / Provided
“In many cases, it is more cost effective to stay closed,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres.

Under the city’s guidelines for reopening, performance venues must limit indoor crowds to 25 percent capacity or 50 people, whichever number is smaller. A venue can have more than 50 people in a single theater if there are groups separated by balconies and if those groups have separate entrances and bathrooms.

If a venue were to open, rows or seats would be decommissioned to allow for social distancing. Masks would be required of guests and staff, but not performers on stage. The city also recommends the use of plexiglass between vocalists and wind instrument performers.

Those guidelines might be reasonable, but they make reopening unfeasible financially and practically, industry veterans said. It’s also not certain there’s an appetite for live performances right now.

“I don’t see our audience flocking back right away,” said Jorge Silva, managing director of The Neo-Futurists, an Andersonville theater company.

RELATED: First To Close, Last To Open: Will Chicago’s Independent Music Venues Survive The Coronavirus?

Operating at 25 percent capacity does not make financial sense for a lot of venues, said Gomez, who co-founded the Chicago Independent Venue League. The group is an alliance of venues working together to advocate for changes so they can make it through the pandemic.

Live shows require production labor, bartenders, sound experts and security. Revenue from a 50-person show would not cover costs, Gomez said.

“I would lose more money if I opened at 25 percent than if I’d stay closed,” Gomez said. “It’s just a labor-intensive industry.”

The problem is particularly acute with the city’s small venues and storefront theaters. Such venues often operate on shoestring budgets, meaning that training staff and performing extra cleaning can become a serious financial strain. In some places, the spaces don’t lend to social distancing.

“In many cases, it is more cost-effective to stay closed,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres.

At Lifeline Theatre in Rogers Park, the 99-seat venue would be able to welcome 24 guests to a performance, said Allison Cain, the theater’s managing director. But even that crowd size would make it difficult to practice social distancing.

The bathrooms are small and would likely require lines into the lobby, which is also a confined space, Cain said. There would likely need to be lines out the door, which is an unwelcome guest experience.

Plus, the dressing rooms are too small for adequate social distancing among performers, Cain said.

“We can’t quite figure out a way to do it safely,” Cain said. “We’re not in a position to lose money. Our margins are so tight already.”

Aside from the financials and logistics, some of the problem is aesthetics.

Part of the appeal of live performances is the communal experience. At The Neo-Futurists, audience participation is crucial to the performance. Without that aspect, the appeal of the performance is lessened, Silva said.

“The theater’s intimacy and our audience engagement, that’s part of the aesthetic,” he said. “It’s hard to see those elements that are so crucial to a show not being present.”

Credit: Empty Bottle/Provided
Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western Ave.

Many industry veterans believe live entertainment will remain sidelined until there is a coronavirus vaccine or a highly effective treatment for the virus.

The question becomes: Can venues survive that long?

The industry’s survival is in doubt, but experts say more can be done to help.

A local or federal stimulus program could help small and mid-size venues bridge the gap until performances can resume, Clapp said. A statewide artist relief fund city and state leaders coordinated was just a “drop in the bucket,” she said.

“After four months of being closed, we are nowhere near opening, and we’ve seen no relief,” Clapp said. “The city is dependent on having a thriving theater scene. If they want to keep it thriving, they might want to change their philosophy on that.”

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