Tens of thousands of people attend Music Midtown in Piedmont Park each year. This year’s Music Midtown is set for Sept. 19-20, but the coronavirus pandemic and the new age of social distancing as well as music artists canceling shows has put the fest’s happening in doubt, according to sources
BYRON E. SMALL
Stanchions with chains surround the legendary parquet dance floor at Johnny’s Hideaway in Buckhead. The expansive outdoor deck at the Atlanta Eagle, packed just weeks ago with hundreds of boisterous patrons, is vacant. The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra canceled most of its season. And the illustrious Atlanta Jazz Festival held every year in Piedmont Park over Memorial Day weekend was postponed until August.
Bars, nightclubs and live event venues depend on large crowds for their survival. But in the era of the coronavirus pandemic, when crowds are considered an enemy, many in the nightlife industry are unsure what the future holds for their livelihoods.
“I just don’t see how we’re going to gather in big groups and rub and hug and kiss and dance and sweat on each other until there’s some type of cure or some type of vaccine for this,” Ramey said. “I can’t even put into words the thought of that happening.”
Gov. Brian Kemp recently eased coronavirus restrictions to allow for the limited reopening of many businesses, including malls and movie theaters, in a controversial decision questioned by some public health experts who fear more Covid-19 infections. He did, however, extend the shutdown of the nightlife industry through at least June 1 because, he said, doing so “will enhance health outcomes.”
Dr. Christine Zurwaski, an infectious disease expert in private practice at Atlanta ID Group and also a physician at Piedmont Hospital, said she was pleased bars and nightclubs weren’t allowed to reopen as soon as other businesses. In the 1990s, she used to dance at the Atlanta Eagle and remembered being packed in crowds so tight it was difficult to move.
“Honestly, going into bars is the last possible thing that I would want to do right now,” she said.
“Even if you could get some people in a bar and keep them spread apart from one another, they’re going to be drinking, and alcohol doesn’t really help your judgment,” she said. “The same with concert venues … you just can’t police that as a business owner.”
Zurwaski said she was at first “terrified” when businesses began opening their doors again last month but acknowledged the state’s move for increased testing has calmed those fears. She can’t, however, predict when people will be able to again stand shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd without the fear of contracting the coronavirus.
“That’s the $100 million question,” she said. “The only good answer I can think of is when we have a vaccine.”
Nick Rivero is co-founder of Meptik, an Atlanta-based production and design studio that specializes in creating experiences “that drive human connection.” Last year as part of Super Bowl 53 in Atlanta, the studio produced real-time, audio-reactive graphics and project mapping for a DirecTV concert featuring the Foo Fighters and Run the Jewels.
Rivero said the studio had a major project planned for South by Southwest in early March, the massive annual conference and festival that brings together interactive media, music and film. When the fest was canceled, it was the first domino to topple for Meptik’s projects remaining throughout the year. January projects are doubtful as well, he said. A Paycheck Protection Program loan has kept his full staff employed.
“Me and my team, we come from a world of live events and I’ve only ever known the live concert entertainment industry my whole career,” he said. “It’s a very weird time because there’s never been a period like this in entertainment history, in concert history.”
When Meptik returns to work, it will be a new world, he said. The first and main question to resolve is how to keep people safe. That could include taking temperatures of attendees, hand sanitation stations as well as capping attendance. Government intervention and guidelines, at the federal or state level, are needed as well to ensure consistency across the country and around the globe, he said.
“I do fundamentally think we will get back [to attending live events] because we as human beings crave that experience,” Rivero said. “A big question obviously is when and how, and you know it’s going to be a long road. There’s no straight answer to the how.”
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Executive Director Jennifer Barlament said the ASO was forced in March to cancel its Delta Classical Season through June 14 and cancel or postpone Atlanta Symphony Hall Live Performances through June 30. The loss in ticket revenue is more than $3 million.
The ASO’s main stage is now a virtual stage that features archival performances and recordings, as well as newly created content from the musicians, she said. Nothing can replace the live experience, she said, but what that looks like is not known.
“Our 2020/2021 subscriptions went on sale in March, shortly after the shutdown, and at this time we are scenario planning for a future that is unclear and changing daily,” she said. “The new season is scheduled to begin in September, so we’re using this time to work with our peers across the city, country and around the world to draw inspiration and create the best path forward for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra,” Barlament said.
There is a considerable overlap of nightlife and the restaurant industries, said Tom Smith, an associate professor with Emory University’s Goizueta Business School with expertise in the economics of the entertainment industry.
Restaurants and nightlife have been “decimated” by the pandemic, he said.
“And I don’t think they are going to bounce back as quickly as everybody thinks,” he said. “People are going to be very hesitant to engage in behavior that they know is going to be risky. Even when people say, ‘All clear,’ people are not going to jump back and say, ‘Let’s put ourselves in a situation where someone is going to sweat on us on a dance floor.’
“And for some clubs, it might mean they never open back up,” Smith said. And while nightlife is an important part of the state’s economic fabric, the industry contributes very little to its gross domestic product, he added.
“It would make a lot of people really unhappy if their favorite club closed, but Georgia would not even notice it from an economic standpoint,” he said.
If Johnny’s Hideaway closed, maybe the financial loss wouldn’t be felt by the state’s economy. But the 41-year nightclub, where hundreds of young and not-so-young people gather on weekends to dance the night away to Tony Bennett or Madonna, is an Atlanta mainstay. Losing it would be losing a part of the city’s history.
“I hope those days come back,” Chris D’Auria, owner of the nightclub said of the crowded nights. Currently, the nightclub’s restaurant is open for limited dine-in service, but no DJs are spinning tunes. So far the most customers at the club has been 22; on Friday and Saturday nights before the pandemic, there were easily between 600 and 700 people throughout the nights, he said.
“But it’s out of my hands until public health officials, Gov. Kemp and Mayor [Keisha Lance] Bottoms decide what they want to do,” he said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has announced bars in the Lone Star State can reopen at 25% capacity beginning Friday, May 22. Restrictions, however, include discouraging dancing and other close-contact interactions and prohibiting seating at the actual bar.
That capacity is too low for Johnny’s Hideaway to make it, D’Auria said. “If they allow 50% capacity, the majority of people I’ve spoken to, including myself, [believe] we could make a race out of that. That that might work.”