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No, Easing Capacity Limits Doesn’t Help Ailing Concert Venues Much In St. Louis

Broadway Oyster Bar in downtown St. Louis was buzzing with patrons on a recent evening. The venue has live music scheduled for nearly every night this month.
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
Broadway Oyster Bar in downtown St. Louis was buzzing with patrons on a recent evening. The venue has live music scheduled for nearly every night this month.

Officials in St. Louis and St. Louis County began relaxing pandemic restrictions on entertainment venues this week. But clubs and theaters won’t be filling up with patrons anytime soon.

Until this week, venues had been limited to 50% of their usual audience capacity. (That percentage was lower earlier in the pandemic.) St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page issued a joint order Monday removing the cap, as well as lifting an 11 p.m. curfew and a limit on large gatherings.

But the requirement that groups of patrons be kept six feet away from each other remains in place. Some live event producers say the social-distancing requirement means they’re unable to increase audience capacity, regardless of the changes to other regulations.

“It’s a good thing, but it doesn’t take us back to 100%. That’s the conundrum of the rule,” said John May, managing partner of BB’s Jazz, Soups and Blues in downtown St. Louis.

Before the pandemic, May’s club offered a combination of table seating, bar seating and space for patrons to mill around. He could accommodate up to 300 patrons.

After closing shop in the wake of the first round of coronavirus safety restrictions last year, May resumed booking live acts at his venue in June 2020. He now seats everyone at tables spaced six feet apart. The new setup allows for about 75 patrons per event.

The biggest difference made by this week’s rule change, May said, is that more people may feel comfortable going out. He can’t fit in any more socially distanced tables, but if larger parties turn up to use the current ones he could squeeze in about 15 more people.

Even with coronavirus safety measures in place, the trend in the region has been for more venues to offer in-person performances.

Metro Theatre Company began performing on a temporary, outdoor stage in Kirkwood last month. Students at COCA were due to begin three nights of live performance Thursday. On a recent weekday evening, Broadway Oyster Bar in downtown St. Louis was buzzing with patrons as a band performed a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The music club and restaurant has a near-daily lineup of live music planned throughout May.

More performances on the way

Easing capacity restrictions has not yet prompted leaders of many venues to revise their seating plans.

“Nothing has changed with us. 50% capacity or 100% capacity doesn’t make any difference. As long as six-foot social distancing remains in place our capacity will remain at about 30% max,” a spokesperson for the Fabulous Fox Theatre wrote in an email. The Fox began hosting live events again in April after sitting mostly dormant since March 2020.

Pat Hagin, managing partner of the Pageant in the Delmar Loop, said he’ll continue to offer shows with a capacity of 336. The venue accommodates 2,000 patrons without coronavirus safety restrictions.

oyster hosue 2.jpg
Jeremy D. Goodwin
St. Louis Public Radio
A bustling music schedule at Broadway Oyster House is emblematic of a growing trend: Live performances are returning.

Opera Theatre St. Louis will return to in-person performances May 26 on a temporary stage in the parking lot adjacent to its Webster Groves venue. The setup can fit 266 audience members. A representative with the theater said the organization will consider in coming weeks whether to add any seating.

At the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which is resuming in-person performances May 28 at COCA’s new Catherine B. Berges Theatre, leaders are taking a similar approach.

Jazz St. Louis has offered a steady stream of online performances during the pandemic, but as of this week does not yet have specific plans to reopen its venue to audiences.

There’s at least one venue where audience sizes may increase dramatically: The Chesterfield Amphitheater will accommodate up to 2,000 audience members, beginning with a Saturday performance by Little River Band.

After staying closed last season, the municipally operated venue reopened with two performances in April with a maximum capacity of 866 patrons. Regulations in St. Louis County require concert venues seating 500 or more to submit a safety plan for approval.

“We put a lot of thought into it and decided that we thought we could provide a safe environment to resume concerts,” Chesterfield Superintendent of Arts and Entertainment Jason Baucom said. “Those first two shows really gave us confidence. People are excited about getting back to live music. It’s been a long time.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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