Entertainment spaces allowed to reopen Oct. 9 under a recent executive order from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer aren’t all rushing to do so.
Concert venues, in particular, met Friday’s announcement with some optimism about moving forward but say opening for shows at 20-percent capacity is far from a return to normalcy. Making a profit or at least breaking even by hosting a live performance would be impossible under the capacity limitations, say venue operators who are also contending with the added uncertainty around traveling acts.
“We’ll dip our toes in the water with maybe inviting a couple of special donors to watch some of our performances in person that we livestream, but we couldn’t put on an event,” said Linda Gellasch, executive director of the Grand Rapids Community Media Center, which operates the Wealthy Theatre. A 20-percent capacity limit would allow 50-70 people to attend a show, which would equate to a revenue loss, Gellasch added.
Whitmer’s order issued on Sept. 25 — long-awaited by businesses in the entertainment and indoor recreation industries — allows cinemas, venues, arcades, bingo halls, bowling centers, trampoline parks and similar facilities to reopen at limited capacities.
Non-residential indoor gatherings and events are limited to 20 people per 1,000 square feet or 20 percent of fixed seating capacity, and face coverings are required. The state’s largest venues are limited to 500 people.
“I know these business owners have made incredible sacrifices during this crisis to protect our families and frontline workers, and my administration will continue working to help them get back on their feet,” Whitmer said in a statement last week. “We are not out of the woods yet, and we will continue to monitor the effects of these incremental changes.”
‘In no hurry’
Scott Hammontree, partner and talent buyer at The Intersection, shared a similar outlook as Gellasch.
“Unfortunately, we cannot operate at the capacity we have been given,” Hammontree told MiBiz. “Twenty percent capacity likely will not work for the majority of venues.”
While he and Gellasch called Whitmer’s Sept. 25 order an important step forward, Hammontree said music venues are limited since “touring is basically at a standstill right now as artists still are not touring at even a resemblance of pre-COVID levels.”
While The Intersection may consider events “just for community engagement … with zero revenue we cannot afford to lose money when we do open,” he said.
Brandon Blank, general manager of the Park Theatre in Holland, believes the limited capacity will allow for experimenting with different types of concert formats.
“We’re in no hurry to do anything, but this gives us the opportunity to look at what we do and our industry and see how maybe we can be a trendsetter in what the new normal is for venues,” Blank said, adding that he’s hoping to have at least some scaled-back events by the end of the year.
“Twenty percent puts us at a really low number, so we may have to reinvent a show, but it’s something we’re willing to do and are currently looking at,” Blank said. The options could include adding a digital livestream component to performances.
“We’re just trying to be smart for our community and we want to stand the test of time,” Blank said. “Opening for a month and closing back down doesn’t make much sense.”
Cinemas ‘thrilled’ by announcement
Five of Celebration Cinema’s 10 theaters it owns in Michigan — including a new theater at Studio Park in Grand Rapids — will likely reopen on Oct. 9 with the rest following shortly after, said Emily Loeks, the company’s director of community affairs.
“It’s going to be a really challenging year ahead, but we’re thrilled to have gotten to this point,” Loeks said. “There’s been a lot of work that’s gone into the cinema safe reopening plan.”
The company will release more details on how it plans to reopen its 10 Michigan theaters next week, but the limited capacity that restaurants have operated under for months will serve as a guide, Loeks said. Parties will be spaced away from each other, and people will be required to wear face coverings as they find a reserved seat or move around.
“This allows us to keep people on our team and keep them employed and get people back with benefits,” Loeks said. “We were at the end of our rope on being able to do that.”
While the capacity restrictions may be good for momentum, Loeks said it could be at least a year until movie theaters are operating at pre-pandemic levels.
“We hope the ramp-up is swifter, but we know it’s going to be a while still,” she said. “As summertime comes to an end with outdoor activities, people will be looking at the safer indoor options to have experiences together and share stories together.”
Loeks contends theaters will be safe spaces with “robust” HVAC systems, high ceilings and relatively little movement among patrons.
Bowling centers prepare for rebound
While few silver linings came with a six-month shutdown of bowling centers, the timing of the pandemic-induced measures did play into proprietors’ favor.
A majority of the shutdown took place over the summer, which is traditionally the slowest time of the year for bowling centers. Since then, Whitmer permitted competitive bowling to commence in early September, which allowed the centers to salvage league play — a major revenue driver.
Now, public bowling will kick off on Oct. 9 at limited capacity.
“Obviously it’s nice having the doors open — it was one of those things where we couldn’t continue to keep our industry shut down much longer,” said Tyler Ladwig, operator of the century-old Wenger’s Bowling Center in Grand Rapids. “Six months is too long. Luckily, the only good thing was that it was closed during the summer time.”
Ladwig said he and his team took about a week to prepare the two-story facility for reopening after the executive order allowing competitive bowling.
“It’s a little more complicated than just flipping a switch,” he said.