As St. Louis venues get back on their feet, they aim for consistent COVID-19 rules
When performing arts venues shut down in March 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the rules were clear: Large public gatherings were outlawed in St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Over time, officials have gradually reduced restrictions. The indoor mask mandate in St. Louis remains in effect, but the city no longer imposes caps on audience size. That leaves performing troupes and venue managers to decide how best to keep their patrons, staff and artists safe from the virus.
Most local venues now require patrons to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test to enter. Beyond that, showgoers may encounter different environments from one venue to another, or even one night to the next.
Different show-going cultures
One variable is compliance with the indoor mask mandate.
“Some crowds are more apt to follow that instruction, other crowds are a little less. But by and large the compliance has been good,” said Pat Hagin, managing partner of the Pageant and Delmar Hall, two marquee clubs in the Delmar Loop. He said the crowd for singer-songwriter Julien Baker’s recent show was largely masked, while “some of the rowdier” acts draw fans who are more likely to refuse.
When jam band Umphrey’s McGee played the Pageant twice last month, it was hard to spot many attendees with masks on as they crowded onto the sweaty dance floor. At a sold-out Béla Fleck performance at the Sheldon last week, or David Sedaris’s talk at the Stifel Theatre on Sunday, it was hard to spot a person without one.
It’s not a surprise to encounter a different show-going culture at a rock show in a club than at a musical in an upscale theater, where there may be armies of ushers on hand to gently prevent patrons from taking photos or talking on their phones. But coronavirus-wary ticket buyers who are already hesitant to attend a crowded, indoor event may be surprised to discover they’ve entered a mask-free zone on a given night.
There’s a good reason that not all venues enforce mask use equally.
“We don’t want to get into fights with people,” Hagin said. “We’re not going to chase them into the crowd and force them to put a mask on. That’s just unrealistic, as far as what we’re capable of doing.”
When the Pageant began hosting limited-capacity events for socially distanced, seated patrons last fall and earlier this year, it was much more feasible to enforce mask-wearing. To try that now would put employees in dangerous situations, Hagin said. “When you’re trying to enforce it to that extent, with a large crowd, there’s a lot of things that can go wrong. And things can escalate very quickly.”
Add alcohol to the mix, and crowd behavior is even less predictable.
At Off Broadway, a smaller St. Louis club, co-owner Steve Pohlman experiences similar issues. He said the vast majority of his patrons wear masks without complaint, especially at shows featuring local bands, with customers who are regulars. But he’s encountered enough resistance to start hiring two additional security guards for each show.
“Just as in most businesses, there’s been friction about the mask mandate and people are — I want to use the right word. They go from zero to 60 pretty quickly, Pohlman said. “I think everybody has a short fuse now.”
More than just masks
Encouraging mask use is not the only way local venues are working to create safe environments for their patrons. Many venues, including the Fox, Pageant, Delmar Hall, the Sheldon and the Grandel have invested in new airflow systems designed to improve circulation and reduce the chances for the virus to accumulate. The Kranzberg Arts Foundation developed and released a guidebook of best practices for venues, covering details including ticketless entry and remote drink orders.
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra leaders conducted extensive studies last winter to determine how safe it is for dozens of musicians to sit in close proximity. The SLSO also led the coalition of 16 local venues that announced vaccine requirements starting in September. Other venues, including the Factory and Hollywood Casino Amphitheater, announced similar policies.
“We wanted to create a more uniform approach to this,” SLSO President and CEO Marie-Hélène
Bernard said of mid-pandemic performance practice. “The cultural organizations really came together to make similar requirements so that we could basically set expectations for audiences.”
With the ready availability of COVID-19 vaccines and boosters, many venues have removed the capacity limits that crippled their cash flow earlier in the pandemic and made other moves toward pre-pandemic operations.
The packed house for Fleck at the Sheldon was a very different environment from shows at that venue during September’s Music at the Intersection festival, when capacity was strictly limited and patrons tended to maintain social distancing. After staging chamber concerts with no intermission last year and the musicians socially distanced onstage, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra is now presenting longer performances with the full orchestra, food and drink service during intermission and the musicians in their usual seating formation. This weekend, the orchestra will perform with a full chorus onstage for the first time since before the pandemic.
At BB’s Jazz, Blues and Soups, where patrons are seated at tables and many order dinner from the kitchen, there is no vaccine requirement, and patrons are free to remove their masks once they’re seated. But Operations Manager John May still enforces social distancing, something that’s hard to find on a crowded night at the Fox or Powell Hall.
“We’ve grown into it,” May said of the changed situation. “At least we’re not losing money hand over foot. We’re struggling to get to the end of the year, but we’ve got a good business model.”
He said the return of baseball to nearby Busch Stadium boosted business this year, but winter is typically a busy time, and he hopes to see business continue to improve.
The case of the missing ticketholders
Venue owners say their finances are looking much better now than at this time last year but are still well behind pre-pandemic levels. One lingering issue is a curiously high percentage of no-shows — people who buy a ticket but don’t attend the event.
At Powell Hall, the no-show rate has risen from around 10% to as much as 45% at some concerts. At Off Broadway, the rate is around 20%. At the Pageant, no-shows accounted for as much as 40% of ticket sales earlier in the fall but have now dropped to about 20%, which is still double the pre-pandemic average.
That’s a big step up from venues not being able to sell events tickets at all. Financial arrangements vary across different organizations. When someone buys a ticket and doesn’t show up, it doesn’t hurt the performer, who typically receives most of the box office profits. But it hurts the venue, where food and drink sales are an essential source of revenue.
“I think that when they think about being in a room full of people in close quarters, there’s a lot of things in the news to cause you to pause before you do that,” Pohler said of the no-shows. “But we’re really grateful to be doing shows, whatever they look like.”
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