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Florida's Live Arts Destinations Still Quiet As Coronavirus Plays On

Woman stands in an empty theater with purple seats.
Cathy Carter
Mary Bensel, Executive Director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, isn't sure when the Sarasota venue will be able to stage its next production.

With a 50-foot long L-shaped bar, weekly blues music nights and a Sunday gospel brunch, The Blue Rooster in Sarasota is the kind of place people come back to. And that's what they did when the live music club and restaurant opened back up in June after a two and a half month shutdown. 

But things changed as Florida quickly turned into a coronavirus hot spot.

"Last week, we probably had 15 people in there a night,” said Bill Cornelius, owner of The Blue Rooster. “If you do that, you can't afford to stay open.”

And so, The Blue Rooster is not open anymore.  Cornelius says he's closing his doors again until at least the middle of September.

An overhead look at restaurant/club with people at tables and a music stage.
Credit Cathy Carter
With dwindling attendance because of coronavirus concerns, The Blue Rooster will be closed until at least the middle of September.

"We never had any problems with anyone being sick,” he said. “We had a problem with our customers wanting to take a chance on their health and coming out, even though they love live music, it could be a death sentence."

About 30 employees at the venue will be laid off for a second time and, because the venue features live music six days a week, many local and national musicians will have one less place to play, and one less paycheck. 

Cornelius calls many of them friends and says he worries about them.

"Especially the husband and wife teams that travel around in a van,” he said. “A lot of them have young children and they are out there crossing the county. A lot of times they just do it to spread a message and I feel for those people."  

Jose Ramirez is a Tampa-based musician and one of the artists impacted by the shuttering of the concert business. He's a nationally known blues guitarist and performs at clubs all across the country. He says several of them have already had to close for good.

"Some of them have been around for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “If it wasn't for COVID, they'd still be around and we would all be able to still enjoy live music in these small intimate venues."

Musicians, stagehands, bartenders, and fans have all felt the loss of live music. And a recently created advocacy group is pushing hard to save the industry.

Woman bartender wearing mask pouring cocktail.
Credit Cathy Carter
Bartender Kalene Reilmann serves drinks at the Blue Rooster before it closed for a second time on July 25.

Audrey Fix Schaefer of the National Independent Venue Association says the situation is bleak.

“Because we have zero revenues and all the overhead, and we still have to pay rent and taxes, insurance, and utilities,” she said, “there's no money left."

The group has been working with lawmakers for federal support and two bills have been introduced in the House and the Senate.

The RESTART Act would provide long-term loans to businesses with high overhead and no revenue due to the pandemic. And the Save Our Stages Act would establish a $10 billion grant program aimed specifically toward live venues. 

But Schaefer says the clock is ticking and Congress needs to act before the August recess.

"If the shutdown lasts six months or longer, and there's no federal support, 90 percent - nine zero - of our members would fold and never open up again."

Man at a music club wearing glasses smiles at camera with a stage in the background.
Credit Cathy Carter
Tampa based musician Jose Ramirez says Congress should step in to help save live music venues.

And that would be devastating for musicians and performing artists like Ramirez.

“I think the government should really pay attention to those workers who are non-essential - in quotes - and really help them out because we are just waiting for the opportunity to work."

As Mary Bensel, with Sarasota's Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall can attest, there is also an emotional component to the crisis - one that a survey or study can't really capture.

"I remember going to see our Paul Anka concert the night before we had to close the theater and I never knew that concert would stay with me because I don't know when the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall can open again."

Venues like the Van Wezel - with 1700 seats - face similar problems like more intimate spaces such as The Blue Rooster. Bensel says she can't book a show if performers aren't touring, and even if they were, the venue can't make money at 50 percent capacity.

"The financial model wouldn't work," she said. "When you pay an act what I'm paying an act, the seats would have to be $2000, $3000 apiece, it doesn't compute."

Once the vaccine is here, I think people will be very anxious to get out and resume their lives. Music brings everyone joy.

And she says, this is not just an arts issue.  It also has a ripple effect on local economies.   

"Restaurants, bars, valet parking, hotels, you name it. People come internationally to Sarasota because of the arts," she said. "And I can tell you, this country will not be open again until our stages come back and are full with performers and an audience watching us."

If and when financial relief arrives, it will provide the country’s live entertainment a lifeline.

But what's unknown is when people will feel safe to stand shoulder-to-shoulder at a concert or sit side-by-side at a theater. When that day comes, Bill Cornelius of The Blue Rooster says businesses like his can return to normal.

"I honestly think that it'll recover very quickly,” he said. “Once the vaccine is here, I think people will be very anxious to get out and resume their lives. Music brings everyone joy. We plan to be here."

But realty is - even with a lifeline - many others will not.

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