Florida Venues To Open Back Up (Sorta) As State Lifts COVID Restrictions

Fairgrounds Reimagined
Courtesy Central Florida Fairgrounds
– Fairgrounds Reimagined
The Central Florida Fairgrounds can host 25,000 fans but will greatly reduce its capacity for its upcoming Sister Hazel drive-in show.
When the news broke Sept. 25 that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had moved the state into the third and final phase of re-opening, lifting all COVID restrictions, the first question on the minds of folks in the live industry was whether in-person concerts could finally fully resume. The answer is a bit complicated. 
Phase 3 of Florida’s “Safe. Smart. Step-by-Step” Plan” says “Bars, pubs, and nightclubs that derive more than 50 percent of sales from alcohol should operate at full capacity with limited social distancing protocols.” As for large venues, including concerts halls and auditoriums, “these venues should re-open fully with limited social distancing protocols.” 
Although DeSantis’ announcement gave bars, nightclubs, restaurants and all other businesses the go-ahead to immediately reopen at full capacity, the statewide opening rules allow local governments the ability to keep 50% capacity limits in place if justified for health or economic reasons. 
“Every business has the right to operate. If some of the locals, they can do reasonable regulation, but you can’t just say ‘no’ after six months and just have people twisting in the wind,” DeSantis said during his announcement in St. Petersburg, according to The Florida Times-Union
Some counties and cities quickly updated their emergency orders, keeping capacity and social distancing restrictions in place to protect residents against the spread of COVID, including the city of Fort Lauderdale and Miami-Dade County (which also specified that clubs that include dancing must require that masks be worn on the dance floor). For many venues in the Sunshine State, the conflicting messages between the state and local government have left them in a tough spot. 
Greg Aliferis, owner/promoter of the 600-capacity Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale, is one such executive.
“Our last show here at Culture Room was on March 8, 2020, and we have not been permitted to open our doors until now,” Aliferis told Pollstar. “I had just received the new Fort Lauderdale Phase 3 re-opening ordinance this morning, which does include restrictions, so we are in the process of evaluating how we can successfully apply this to re-opening Culture Room.  After being closed for the past seven months, we are going to open as soon as possible, however, this must be done responsibly. As of now, we find ourselves receiving conflicting information from the State, County and City.  
“We are concerned for the safety of fans and the Culture Room staff.  Also, there is the concern of COVID-19-related litigation, as well as fans willingness to comply with the Phase 3 restrictions.  We still consider this situation to be extremely fluid, and we can see the City or County possibly adding additional restrictions at any time – or even reverting back to Phase 2, which would once again require us to close.  Culture Room has been open for 24 years and has weathered major hurricanes, Zika virus, and now we have the challenge of defeating Covid 19 – which we will. However, I’m not sure yet if Fort Lauderdale’s Phase 3 re-opening ordinance really gets us there.”
Venues in most of Florida’s 64 counties – with the exception of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach – have already been allowed to operate at 50% capacity since Florida entered Phase 2 of reopening in early June. 
Some venues reopened in June with reduced hours to comply with local curfews and social distancing measures, including Orlando’s House Of Blues, which has been hosting live music on its front porch, according to Orlando Weekly. (Pollstar reached out to Live Nation for comment about how Phase 3 will affect HoB, but a spokesperson said LN didn’t have any details to share at the moment.) 

Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Fla., put on a six-week series of socially distanced concerts in the Kate Tiedemann And Ellen Cotton Cabaret Theatre, kicking off Aug. 27 with four performances by Mindi Abair.

Although Phase 3 now allows venues to reopen at full capacity, to some buildings, this doesn’t make a difference because of social distancing requirements. So says Gabriel Pellicer, General Manager of St. Johns County Cultural Events Division – which manages the 4,789-capacity St. Augustine Amphitheatre and the 900-capacity Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. 
“Phase 3 will not increase the available seating capacity at the St. Augustine Amphitheatre or Ponte Vedra Concert Hall,” Pellicer says. “This is because it is recommended that we adhere to the CDC guidelines separating unrelated groups 6’ from each other.  Unfortunately, there is no way to have a live show at full capacity either of our venues and follow CDC guidelines.”  
The 1,900-capacity Florida Theatre in Jacksonville, Fla., is one venue that is waiting a few months to reopen. 
A statement posted Sept. 25 on its website in response to the Phase 3 news says, “The next scheduled Florida Theatre show is Piff the Magic Dragon on December 4. If that changes, it will be announced directly to the audience in a timely manner. Our guiding principle is that the Florida Theatre will be open again when it is safe for the artists and audiences to do so. We’re paying close attention to the best thinking in the sports, arts and entertainment industries on how to do this, and following guidance from the Centers for Disease control, the State of Florida, and the City of Jacksonville. We are specifically working closely with the City of Jacksonville, who understand the importance of returning the arts and entertainment to the life of our city, but our mutual goal is to do it safely. When we have more information about when, and any new protocols that the audiences should expect, we will share it publicly.”

Some state officials have criticized Gov. Santis’ decision to drop all COVID restrictions, with concern over Florida being a coronavirus hotspot in recent months. 

Florida has reported 14,317 COVID-related deaths and 698,051 cases, as of Oct. 1, third overall in total cases by state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Gov. Santis defended his decision to reopen the state’s economy by tweeting Sept. 25 that “1) COVID+ hospitalizations have declined by 77% since the July peak. 2) COVID+ ICU hospitalizations have declined 72% since the July peak. 3) ED visits for COVID-like illness has declined by nearly 80% since the July peak. 4) Daily hospital admissions for COVID have declined by 81% since the July peak. 5) The percentage of positive diagnostic test results for new cases was reported at 4.32%. 6) 24% of hospital beds are empty; so are 23% of ICU beds.” 


Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Sept. 28 that Santis’ decision to reopen bars and restaurants at full capacity was “very concerning.”

“Well that is very concerning to me, I mean, we have always said that, myself and Dr. Deborah Birx, who is the coordinator of the task force, that that is something we really need to be careful abou because when you’re dealing with community spread, and you have the kind of congregate setting where people get together, particularly without masks, you’re really asking for trouble. Now’s the time actually to double down a bit, and I don’t mean close.” 

But bars – where patrons are often crowded together ordering drinks – are different than music venues, where social distancing can be more easily enforced. 

Shawn Krauel, President/CEO of Central Florida Fair and Orlando Amphitheater, says that he is “very happy to see Phase 3 opening.” A few shows were scheduled when Orlando was in Phase 2, but Kraul notes the venue was forced to cancel or postpone the dates after the state reclosed the bars this summer because of rising coronavirus numbers.  
“We are very lucky to have multiple venues on the property of the Central Florida Fairgrounds/Orlando Amphitheater with various capacities ranging from 1,500 up to 25K+ capacity,” Krauel says. “So for us, we’ll continue to look at all events with social distancing/mask awareness and adjust the events to the right capacity to ensure we can provide a safe venue for both the audience and artist. Having outdoor venues including Orlando Amphitheater at 10K-cap, New Pavilion venue at 6K-cap, Festival Field at 25K+cap as well as Indoor Warehouse venue at 4Kcap allows us to move events around for both safety and financial goals – which in this climate is a blessing.”  
Upcoming events include a Benefit Concert & Voter Rally at the Orlando Amphitheater on Oct. 9 featuring Rod Wave and a Sister Hazel drive-in concert at the fairgrounds on Oct. 24. 
Krauel says the Rod Wave show is set at 3,000, which is 30% capacity. The venue will be creating zones on the lawn/concrete area where fans can set up blankets and lawn chairs, with social distance monitors to ensure there is space between groups, along with increased cleaning maintenance/ hand washing stations etc. He says, “The show has about 2,100 tickets sold for that and expect to get to our 30% capacity when the show happens. Our Amphitheater can do 10K GA so there is plenty of room.”
Even though in-person shows are being allowed to return with Phase 3, Krauel says he thinks there is still a market for drive-in events as there is demand for any type of live entertainment. 
“It’s not a great business model that a venue could survive on but it gets employees working and our stage guys/crews back to doing what they do. So we will continue to look at it for content as we can,” Krauel says. 
“But right now it’s about perception in our industry/world. Drive-in shows have been happening across the country – social media doesn’t go crazy cancel culture for it, artists don’t get put on TV or Instagram bashing them for hosting those shows. Most agents in California think it’s crazy Florida is opening Phase 3 cause they are still in lockdown for the most part. So getting them to agree to anything other than a drive-in is tough. There are ways to host shows right now cause we have the same risk you take going into Walmart/Home Depot on a Saturday if you’re looking at capacity standpoint – just have to get past the perception that Venues can’t safely do shows!”
Giving a shout out to NIVA and all they are doing for independent music venues with the Save Our Stages initiative Krauel adds, “As we continue into Fall we will learn and begin working towards complete reopening slowly and when the artist/customers show us they are ready for it. That’s going to continue to hurt the financials and as a 501-c3 nonprofit we are dying like the rest of the venues in the country … But we will keep grinding and hopefully make it out of this hole we are all in.”