Amid all the uncertainty and chaos the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, the fate of Spokane’s local concert venues has gone under the radar.
Spokane is home to over a dozen concert venues and all have felt the effects of the pandemic. Under Washington state’s Phase 2 guidelines, the venues are only allowed to operate at 25% capacity or seat 200 people, whichever comes first.
Laura Sims, the Myrtle Woldson Performing Arts Center (MWPAC) director, admitted that plans to reopen the MWPAC are still up in the air, but she and the rest of the MWPAC staff are exploring virtual options to keep the public engaged.
“We have been having livestreamed events, but will wait until external visitor numbers will not be limited,” Sims said.
Sims hopes the fall semester will bring a chance to reopen the MWPAC, but with COVID-19, she and her staff have little concrete knowledge on when the center will reopen.
A big part of why concert venues are hesitant to reopen is based on profit. Venues struggle to make a profit under current COVID-19 guidelines, which in turn makes it difficult to attract artists and acts.
“We are still uncertain about the fall, we can only have 216 out of 700 with social distancing people in concerts so can’t break even,” Sims said. “Myrtle Woldson has to follow Phase 2 educational guidelines. We haven’t reached a halfway point as far as herd immunity goes.”
In the meantime, the MWPAC is turning to cyberspace to connect with it’s audience and though it is online, the acts and artists featured are still top notch. Sims and the MWPAC celebrated Black History Month through virtual concerts, connecting the MWPAC to the Spokane community.
“The Black History [Month] concert last month was livestreamed, but we are not making any money,” Sims said. “We are also doing a virtual Greenroom where I introduce artists and we see if our audience wants them to come out.”
Although the MWPAC is not making money, Sims noted that times were tough across the board because of COVID-19, not just for concert venues.
“People don’t really want to pay to watch an event now, so we made a conscious decision to make Greenroom free,” Sims said.
Sims said that the MWPAC hopes to open for business at the start of the fall 2021 semester, but admitted it may take until spring to fully reopen. She isn’t sure what the first act to perform in front of a live audience will be.
“It’s hard to figure out because we don’t know who wants to go out and tour, figuring out contracts,” Sims said. “Ideally, by next spring, three shows that were supposed to be scheduled, Arcis Saxophone Quartet, James Tormé and Neil Berg’s 50 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll, will be scheduled.”
Sims said that it is important for them to be smart and safe with how they reopen, as much as they would like to welcome people back with open arms.
“I trust in the decisions being made by the upper university hierarchy," Sims said.
Beyond the borders of Gonzaga’s campus, other concert venues are more optimistic about reopening. Dawson Hoerner, one of the co-owners of the Big Dipper, a venue on Washington Street in downtown Spokane, said the Dipper had plans to open in June.
“We have to wait to see what Phase 3 looks like, the Big Dipper is a pretty small venue and we’re hoping to get up to 50% capacity before it reopens,” Hoerner said. “We have some shows tentatively booked for June.”
Like the MWPAC, the Big Dipper has had to find new ways of connecting to customers while their doors are closed to the public.
“The Big Dipper thought about doing virtual concerts, but there’s quite a lot of that going on,” Hoerner said. “We had started a new phase of our business, Live at the Big Dipper, which we filmed, on Feb. 1, so right before the pandemic hit.”
While venues want to reopen, it’s important to stay cautious given the present environment.
"We took the lockdown seriously and we didn’t see people for about six months,” Hoerner said. “We’re just starting to get together with local musicians, which won’t be live. It won’t bring in money but just keeps us in people’s minds.”
"I appreciate that people keep us in mind and respect that we take this seriously," Hoerner said. "Most people support caution, young musicians included. People have to step as a community and it’s a shared sacrifice.”
Hoerner said the best thing that people can do to help them is to share their content and keep the artists and the Big Dipper in mind.