Small venues consider reopening after a months-long hiatus

Safety is the No. 1 priority for venues amid their various stages of reopening.
Hannah Jon Taylor standing in front of Cafe Coda
Photo courtesy of Café CODA

While the doors of local music venues have been shut for some time, the summer breeze and loosening restrictions are beginning to push open the doors of smaller spots. A few venues reopened briefly in June before the county reimposed restrictions.

Safety is the No. 1 priority for venues amid their various stages of reopening. Venues have responded with capacity restrictions and other approaches to keep their patrons protected.

In June The Bur Oak (formerly The Winnebago) started hosting shows while operating at 25% capacity. The venue, eatery and bar used a contactless ordering app called Noble, which allowed patrons to order food and beverages from their seats. But in early July, public health officials reduced the indoor gathering limits from 50 people to 10, prompting The Bur Oak to close again.

Cafe CODA on Williamson Street plans to reopen with live jazz in mid-September. Venues with larger capacities, like The Overture Center for the Arts and venues that are a part of Frank Productions — High Noon Saloon, The Majestic Theatre, The Sylvee and The Orpheum Theater — are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There is no health and safety measure that is not being considered for implementation,” according to a statement provided by Overture. “Currently the focus of the entire industry is to work closely with local, state and national health agencies on safety measures for performers, touring staff, employees and guests.”

Venues are closely monitoring CDC recommendations and the Forward Dane plan in an effort to proceed with event planning. With outdoor gatherings allowing for more distance, some venues have considered experimenting with outdoor concerts.

But the financial risk of such events is high at a time when venues have already taken a big economic hit.

“Anytime we are producing an outdoor event there is a lot more cost involved than putting a band on our stage at the High Noon Saloon,” Frank Productions President Matt Gerding says. “Those are some of the things we think through based on what capacity we can put outside and whether that makes sense to do, based on things like bringing in a stage, full security staffing and port-a-potties.”

A return to the crowded, bustling indoor music venue of the pre-COVID-19 era poses risks for everyone involved.

Operators are working hard to minimize those risks while providing at least something approximating a live concert experience.

“The response has run the gamut. We have talked to artists that are not yet comfortable performing in public or not comfortable asking their fans to come out in groups to see them,” The Bur Oak part-owner Toffer Christensen says. “There are other artists who do not seem to have any issues playing or asking their fans to come out.”

Gerding observed a similar sentiment in his discussions with those involved in all areas of the concert production process.

“It really depends on each artist — by and large people’s assessments of their own risk tolerance is different across the board,” Gerding says. “Everyone from a band to patrons to our staff has a varying degree of concern to return to venues.”

Henry Michaels is a former editorial intern at Madison Magazine.