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As more Tampa Bay concerts get canceled, a lost summer of entertainment looms

Florida venues are counting on the state to relax limits on mass gatherings. Otherwise, it’ll be a quiet three months.

David Archuleta was supposed to be in Clearwater this weekend.

The American Idol alum had a concert set for Saturday at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre, part of a spring tour behind a new album. But when the coronavirus pandemic struck, he postponed the Clearwater show to Aug. 22.

Now, he’s not sure if that show will happen, either.

“I think we have to watch and take it day by day, week by week, and see if concerts are a wise thing to do yet,” the singer said by phone from his home in Nashville. “I would love to get to do shows by the summertime. But at the same time, what is COVID-19 going to look like? How is it going to be affecting people? Is it going to be safe? That’s more important than anything else. If I end up not being able to go out in 2020, I’ll just do live concerts from my room.”

The state this week decreed that many Florida businesses could reopen with limitations, including retail shops and restaurants. Bars, clubs and performance venues weren’t included.

Even if they had been, the entertainment world can’t just restart by fiat. Artists must want to perform, venues must safely host them, and fans must want to buy tickets.

“Unlike sports, where there’s a TV element to it, if nobody wants to come, does it even make sense to do it?” said Kevin Preast, executive vice president of event management at Amalie Arena.

“Social distancing simply doesn’t work with the kind of work that we do,” said Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, which will remain dark until at least June. “Does it make sense to open a whole building to do something for only 10 or 20 percent of the audience? What’s the expense of that? Honestly, we can’t afford it. We’ve had to pay so much in refunds."

Few venues want to say it out loud, but even if the rest of America reopens, the live entertainment industry could be facing a mostly lost summer.

Said concert promoter Tony Rifugiato, co-owner of St. Petersburg’s Daddy Kool Records: “At the earliest, I don’t see anything, personally, happening before September."

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The Bilheimer Capitol Theatre in Clearwater lit up in blue to pay tribute to health care workers on April 22, 2020. Performances at the venue have been suspended since March in the wake of the coronavirus. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

Among Tampa’s big summer concerts that have already been postponed: The Rolling Stones, Justin Bieber, Thomas Rhett and Brooks and Dunn. Concerts by Journey, the Lumineers and Zion y Lennox were canceled outright.

Yet every venue in Tampa Bay still has events listed for June, July and August. Some of those shows were already rescheduled once, back in March. Tampa’s Sunset Music Festival, which draws 20,000-plus people per day to Raymond James Stadium, is still selling tickets for July 3 and 4.

Many summer events remain on sale in case the state lifts its 10-person limit on public gatherings. But behind the scenes, agents and promoters have been booking additional rounds of replacement dates in case those shows can’t happen.

The biggest barrier to restarting, venue leaders say, is a lack of consistent guidelines.

“This is an industry where we schedule things one, two, three years away," said Richard Haerther, artistic director of the Carrollwood Cultural Center. "We need some guidance as to how we can reopen. We need it now. And we’re not getting it. All we’re getting is, ‘Movie theaters are going to stay closed.’ Well, what about performing arts centers?”

Some states have started making plans. Indiana’s governor has outlined a blueprint dubbed “Back on Track” that could see some clubs and venues reopen at up to 50 percent capacity, or 250 people, as early as June 14. Next week, an Arkansas venue will host a rock concert for a crowd capped at 20 percent capacity, with fans required to wear face masks and seats sold in clusters 6 feet apart.

The Florida Professional Presenters Consortium, which represents nearly 70 performing arts halls, is lobbying state leaders to make a decision on two key factors: “A fair capacity and an open date,” said Bobby Rossi, Ruth Eckerd Hall’s executive vice president for entertainment.

Theaters are pushing to operate at 50 percent capacity, Rossi said, well above the state’s current limits for restaurants and shops. He believes social distancing within a venue is not a viable solution.

“One artist told me, ‘Look, I’m not playing out there in front of a checkerboard full of people,' " Rossi said. "That’s not right for them, it’s not right for us, it’s not what this is about.”

The reopening date is equally important. Once venues have an idea when they can resume, they’ll know whether they have enough lead time to sell tickets — or cap sales on shows on the books.

“It’s not going to be a faucet where it turns on, and there’s a show that week,” Rossi said. “If it’s back to work June 1, it doesn’t mean we have a show June 10. Our first show beyond that point might be Sept. 10. But it gets the mindset of the public back.”

Another coalition of about 40 performing arts halls nationwide has been studying the health risks and impacts of reopening. Lorrin Shepard, chief operating officer of the Straz Center, is chairing that group’s task force on the human element of live events, from ticket windows to drink stands to backstage offices. He said they’re working on establishing a set of guiding principles.

“If there are attractions to put on, we need to be ready,” Shepard said. “None of us are physicians or scientists, nor are we public health policy people. It would be just a wild guess if I were to tell you when I thought we could get it done. But we’ve identified really good resources.”

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The ghost light is a tradition in the theater world, where when the house empties out at the end of the night, they leave one light shining at the center of the stage. Freefall Theatre has left its on. [Jay Cridlin]

Smaller venues, especially nonprofits, face their own challenges.

The Carrollwood Cultural Center hopes to stage events with a lower capacity starting in June. They’re facing a more than 27 percent shortfall in projected annual revenue, Haerther said. And that’s assuming a July production of the musical Titanic, already pushed back from March, can still happen.

Reducing Titanic’s seating from about 140 to 100 “is going to have a further impact on the budget, but at least we can get the show up and going,” Haerther said.

Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg suspended two spring plays, but may yet stage Oz, a new musical co-written by artistic director Eric Davis, in June. Davis said Freefall, like other theaters, is researching “what audiences will want or expect as things begin to come back.”

He pointed to the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. Starting in August, it will implement strict socially distant seating for one-person shows and cabaret performances.

“They are putting measures in place that would simply not make any financial sense for us,” Davis said.

When restaurants were allowed to reopen this week, one concert venue that could have taken advantage was Tampa’s Skipper’s Smokehouse, which has been closed since March. Co-owner Tom White said he had too many other concerns, including paying bills and furloughed staff, to think about booking concerts. But he can’t just abandon music for food.

“To be successful, we need both,” he said.

Reopening his stage would be a “phased-in process,” he said, "maybe some solos and duos or play-for-tips kind of things to start.” Even then, his troubles wouldn’t be over.

“What happens when the cases kick up because all the asymptomatic people are infecting everyone?” he said. “How many people will wait a couple months to let the early birds be the guinea pigs? I see a lot of that (on Facebook). People are still uber-worried, and deservedly so.”

• • •

Ricky Skaggs already has some experience performing in a socially-distanced venue.

On April 18, the bluegrass legend played a live-streamed concert from a nearly empty Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, with musicians spaced apart and only essential personnel in the building. The reaction on social media showed him how much people miss live music.

“Even before I got home, people were emailing me or texting me, saying, ‘Man, I felt so much joy, so much peace, and it was so great to have that come into my living room,’” Skaggs said. “When that was taken away and that was stopped, it just left a lot of people feeling numb, like, ‘Is this going to be forever?’”

Skaggs hopes to quickly resume his postponed spring tour, which includes an Aug. 20 date at the Bilheimer Capitol Theatre. He knows it’ll be different. He’s 65, and probably won’t be able to interact with fans. He knows he’ll have to be more careful.

Still, “as soon as we can get back out, we’re going,” he said. “I need to be playing. It’s just a creative outlet. It’s just what I’m called to do. It’s what I’m supposed to do. That’s just a part of me that’s numb and in limbo.”

Once venues can safely reopen, the first acts back could be solo performers, such as comedians or instrumentalists like Skaggs, who might be comfortable playing two shows per night to capped crowds.

“At the end of the year, worst-case scenario, if you can get a dozen shows — and I’m hoping it’ll be way better than that — eight of them might be comedians,” Rossi said. “Two of them might be instrumentalists. Two of them might be acoustic acts, like Leo Kottke or Don McLean. But you’ve got your patrons back. You’ve got them back in the game. They’re in your space again.”

Eventually, that day will come. Amalie Arena’s Preast said he’s optimistic we’ll see concerts in 2020. As for when? That part is too soon to say.

“At the end of the day, we’ll never know what the summer of 2020 was going to look like,” he said. “We’re just going to know what it did look like.”

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