Oregon venues plead with Gov. Brown for reopening help
Live art and entertainment venues in Oregon were among the first operations to close when COVID-19 hit last March. They are now among the last scheduled to reopen, and many fear they will not survive unless Gov. Kate Brown eases her pandemic restrictions on them soon.
In the metropolitan area, they range from such large performance spaces as Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland to the intimate The Old Church Concert Hall in downtown. Owners and operators increasingly believe venues should be allowed to open at full capacity with precautions shortly after all state residents 16 and over have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, provided that hospitalizations remain relatively low.
"As Oregon reopens, please know that venues are the best equipped entities to handle gatherings, groups of people, flow of persons into utility and other spaces, manage cleaning and provide monitoring staff. There is simply no industry better situated to handle the safe, orderly flow of people, while simultaneously enforcing safety guidelines," a coalition of facilities, festivals, promoters and arts organizations wrote Brown and her health advisers on March 31.
In the letter, the coalition explained the Oregon Health Authority's current county-by-county tiered risk levels are unfair to both indoor and outdoor venues. The letter points out their capacities are subject to stricter limits than some other places where the public gathers — including retail stores and faith institutions — in every risk category.
In fact, the letter said, most venues cannot afford to reopen in any of the current categories. The least restrictive is "Lower Risk," where only 50% capacity is allowed. It is unclear when COVID-19 will ease enough for all categories to be eliminated, if ever.
"Regarding capacity restrictions: virtually all venues in Oregon are simply unable to operate at anything less than 60% capacity," said the letter, which was signed by dozens coalition members, ranging from the Portland'5 Centers for the Arts, Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland, the Pendleton Roundup, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and the Britt Music and Arts Fest in Jacksonville, and many more.
Brown concerned by increase in COVID-19 cases
Brown's office told the Portland Tribune the governor understands the importance of venues and has already eased her restrictions on them slightly.
"Economic recovery is one of the Governor's top priorities, and she recognizes how valuable venue operators are to our state—and that they've been hard hit by the pandemic. In an effort to support venue operators, we recently expanded outdoor entertainment capacity by removing hard caps and transitioning to a percent-based limit, and we're currently exploring whether a similar expansion for indoor entertainment would also work," said Brown's press secretary Liz Merah.
But Brown is also concerned that COVID-19 cases are increasing again Oregon. In fact, the health authority moved two of the largest counties — Multnomah and Clackamas — from "Moderate Risk" to "High Risk" on Friday, April 9. That reduced the capacity for indoor and outdoor venues from 25% to just 15%.
"It is because business owners and Oregonians have largely complied with risk levels and health and safety measures that we have prevented surges in hospitalizations and cases. However, COVID-19 is again spreading in our communities. The current risk level framework was designed to be sustainable over the long term while we work to stop the spread of COVID-19. We will continue to assess the situation and plan for what is next as vaccine availability increases," said Merah.
But California is moving rapidly in the other direction. Gov. Gavin Newsome recently announced that all capacity and social distancing restrictions will be lifted for outdoor and indoor events on June 15, subject to the availability of vaccines, continued mask wearing and low hospitalizations from COVID-19.
"Today's news from the governor that capacity limits will be lifted by June 15 is music to our ears! While the arts, culture and live events industries have been shut down for over a year now, we never wanted to reopen before it was safe to do so and nor could most of our sector make it work with limited capacities," Julie Baker, executive director of Californians for the Arts," said in response to the announcement.
Open venues boost Oregon economy
The letter argued that reopening venues is vital to the state's economic recovery. According to the Independent Venue Coalition, before the pandemic, over 13,000 events attended by 7 million were held in Oregon every year. They added $384 million to the state's economy and employed more than 4,000 people.
"Venues and events are crucial to Oregon's economic recovery. Studies have shown that for every dollar spent on a ticket, 12 more dollars are spent directly in the local economy. Many other businesses benefit when people stop, see a show, have dinner, get a hotel or plan a return trip to a festival," said a press statement released with the letter.
The letter was sent as some previously canceled outdoor activities have announced plans to resume this year, with social distancing and other precautions. They include Oak Amusement Park in Sellwood, which will reopen on April 17 at 15% capacity, and the Hood to Coast Relay, scheduled for Aug. 27 and 28. Portland International Raceway, which has been allowing in-car activities and limited club racing, has also announced some major events this summer. They include: the 60th Rose Cup Races, set for July 9 to 11; the West Coast Trans Am and SVRA vintage race series, set for July 23 to 25; and the Grand Prix of Portland Indycar race, set for Sept. 10 to 12.
But, as the letter explains, the logistics for most of the coalition members are far different. Unlike PIR, they are not one of a limited number of tracks that a race series must consider when scheduling a season. Potentially profitable bookings can easily bypass venues in Oregon to perform in any number of other states with fewer restrictions.
"Artists need multi-state tours to make their efforts pencil, and if it's too hard to get a date in Oregon, they will just skip up and hit Washington, Montana, Idaho, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado — all of whom have clear guidelines for reopening," said Marney Smith, general manager of the Les Schwab Amphitheater in Bend, told the Portland Tribune.
Some coalition members had hoped to receive financial support from the Small Business Administration earlier this month. The agency's Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program was scheduled to take application for $16 million in assistance on Thursday, April 8. But the program's website crashed shortly after it opened.
Fuller Events announces Portland option
While many venues are struggling to survive, Fuller Events — a Portland-based promotions company — is taking a risk by opening new outdoor venue that can comply with state COVID-19 restrictions, and accommodate larger crowds when they ease. The company announced in early April that it is investing in building a stage, individual socially-distanced pods, and supporting infrastructure at a 7-acre lot owned by the Zidell family between the Ross Island Bridge and Tilikum Crossing. Dubbed The Lot at Zidell Yards, it will host a scaled-down version of the annual Portland Blues Festival along the Willamette River over the Fourth of July weekend, along with other events scheduled to begin in May.
"The Portland metro area loves arts, culture and outdoor events, and The Lot at Zidell Yards will present them in a safe environment," said co-founder Christina Fuller.
The location is not new. It has hosted numerous events over the years, including some produced by Fuller Events. But Fuller said her company is now planning on allowing and scheduling a wide variety of daily activities at the site because so few other venues are available.
"We could have a yoga class in the morning, a school fundraiser at noon and live entertainment in the evening. The key is being flexible," said Fuller.
Although the property can hold thousands of people, Fuller said it will start by accommodating only a few hundred at a time until COVID-19 restrictions are eased. That includes the Blues Fest, where only 300 tickets may be sold for each day. Fuller said that is better than holding it online, like last year, however.
"Live in-person performances are magic. Remote events are not sustainable," said Fuller.
Despite that, can The Lot at Zidell Yards make money with current COVID-19 restrictions?
"It's a labor of love. We need to start putting our people back to work," said Fuller.
The letter to Brown can be found here.
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