San Diego

Live Event Industry Anxiously Awaits June 15 Reopening After Year of Empty Stages, Lifeless Dancefloors

Some in the industry say they’ve waited patiently as other businesses slowly came back to life – but when California’s economy reopens on June 15th, it’s their turn.

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One thing we’ve all missed the past year and a half is live entertainment.

The pandemic forced thousands of event cancellations locally -- from small concerts to San Diego’s 2020 Comic-Con International. Some in the industry say they’ve waited patiently as other businesses slowly came back to life – but when California’s economy reopens on June 15th, it’s their turn.

Paul Smith owns The Merrow in Hillcrest and told NBC 7 he’s trying to staff up ahead of the state’s reopening, when his bar and live music venue, along with thousands of others statewide, will be able to fully reopen after over a year of repeated shutdowns and challenges.

The Merrow’s event space holds more than 200 people but has been empty for 15 months.

“There was nobody here,” Smith said. “So, it was kind of depressing.”

Smith hopes that when the stage’s curtain comes up next month, money will start rolling in.

“It’s been tough,” he said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to take advantage of grants and outdoor space, but we’ve still seen a 70% hit to the business.”

Smith said the announcement was sudden and is bringing out a range of emotions.

“June 15 was sooner than we thought it was going to happen. It’s great…but I think it’s going to be a while before we get things back into full swing,” he said. “I’m a bit anxious, a bit apprehensive with what to expect with everybody going back out, but I’m excited that we get back to business and generate some real revenue again.”

Smith and other live event venue owners are trying to make up for lost time – booking performers and events to be as prepared as possible for when restrictions lift.

“We’ve got July ready to go with our club nights…and then more likely bands will start rolling in probably in August,” he said. “People come in here and hang out, drink, dance…so I anticipate a lot of dancing coming back.”

Smith had to change his whole business model to stay afloat.

Before the pandemic, The Merrow only served alcohol, but to stay in business while still following California’s guidelines, Smith had to get creative.

“We turned the outdoor space -- the parking lot outside -- into a kind of a makeshift restaurant,” he said. “We partnered up with three of the restaurants close to me and I ran it that way.”

Smith said if he hadn’t served food, he would’ve had to completely shut the business down. Now, the food service combined with alcohol sales has been keeping him afloat.

Smith told NBC 7 the pandemic has taught him to never take anything for granted.

“I’m just hoping that we can come back and get back to -- what are they calling it? Normal?” he said. “Whatever that might be.”

Once restrictions are lifted next month, venues like The Merrow can fully reopen with no restrictions, but “mega events” – which the state defines as events of more than 5,000 people indoors and more than 10,000 outdoors – will still have some rules to follow.

Indoor “mega events” will require verification of an attendee’s fully vaccinated status, or a negative COVID-19 test result. Outdoor “mega events” will recommend the same, or that attendees wear masks.

State officials say people can show vaccination cards, a photo of it or vaccine documentation from a healthcare provider at the events, and say venues may also have people “self-attest” to being vaccinated when they’re buying their tickets or upon entry.

The pandemic hit the live events industry, which employs an estimated 12 million people nationally, much harder than some others.

The San Diego Event Coalition’s Kevin Hellman told NBC 7 more than 200,000 people across the city were economically impacted when concerts, music festivals, tradeshows, dance halls and theaters were either cancelled or closed.

“It trickles down,” he said. “It's not just the bar owner, it's not just the musician, it's not the security guy, it's not the bartender or the waitress. It's everybody.”

But Hellman said the struggle makes the industry’s comeback even sweeter.

“The entertainment industry in San Diego, which has always been so exciting and vibrant, is even better because…people are supporting it more than they ever have,” he said. “I hope a year from now, we can kind of hopefully laugh at some of this and realize…we came back stronger.”

Hellman said The San Diego Event Coalition was formed at the start of the pandemic to advocate for local event professionals, and added that the lessons he and others have learned from working in the industry will prove useful moving forward.

“When you think about the event industry and all the regulations we always have to follow, it's not just because of the pandemic,” said Hellman. “We have to deal with capacity limits, we have to deal with the health department…we always have had to do it safe and now we're going to be even more cautious to make sure we do it right now.”

Hellman said he’s beginning to pencil in event dates as national tour bookings increase, but said local performers are taking a little longer to get back up and running.

He expects that to change by the end of summer.

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