Music venues were the first to close amid the coronavirus pandemic, and will be the last to reopen in many parts of the world.

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This article was published 25/6/2020 (700 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Music venues were the first to close amid the coronavirus pandemic, and will be the last to reopen in many parts of the world.

But here in Winnipeg, live music is making a qualified return to a new normal. The Pyramid Cabaret hosted its first physically distant show in mid-June, and on Saturday night, the Park Theatre is set to have the distinction of putting on the first pandemic-era metal show in Canada when locals Votov and Witchtrip take the stage.

"We’re in super-limited physical-distance capacity, but at least we’re able to do some small shows," says Park Theatre owner Erick Casselman.

He’s relieved to be able to open the doors. "After a while, no matter what, depression starts setting in and you’re wondering what you’re doing wrong. It’s a huge relief and a weight off your shoulders.

"We’re a gathering place," he says. "To not be able to gather was horrendous."

Erick Casselman, owner of the Park Theatre: ‘It’s going to be different.’ (Shannon VanRaes / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Erick Casselman, owner of the Park Theatre: ‘It’s going to be different.’ (Shannon VanRaes / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Of course, how we gather has changed. On June 17, the Park Theatre hosted its first distanced show, a fundraiser for the venue featuring Winnipeg singer-songwriter Scott Nolan, after a hiatus of more than 90 days. It felt good to be back, Casselman says, but it also felt undeniably different.

"People are a little bit cautious when they arrive — and rightly so, until they see all the measures we have in place. And it’s different, too, because it’s not a rock show anymore. It’s not a stand-up-and-dance and mingle and what have you. It’s a whole new world. It’s great getting to where we are — I just can’t wait to get past this and get back to normal."

The Park Theatre is operating at less than 50 per cent of its capacity, out of caution. When one arrives at the venue, there’s a sanitizing station at the front door. The doors are held open so people don’t have to touch the handles. There are distanced lines for drinks and admission. Hand stamps are not used. Employees are masked, and attendees are encouraged to wear masks, as well.

"And then we have designated seating, and we have a Chair Ambassador who to takes people to their chairs, making sure that people aren’t congregating or milling about," Casselman says. "People are still at a show. We don’t expect you to just sit there and not talk, but we encourage you to think of your chair as your anchor spot."

All shows will be seated — including, yes, the metal show on Saturday. "It’s going to be different," Casselman acknowledges, "but it’s the only way we can get back to where we need to get by making sure we keep everyone safe. We’re not taking away rights or your right to have fun or anything, but we’re ensuring that you and everyone else who comes is safe."

When the Park Theatre closed in March, Casselman was resistant to the idea of a fundraising campaign to help with the costs of maintaining the venue while it was silent. "I fought it," he says. "A few of my friends saw the level of depression and where I was and knew how precarious it was."

One of those friends, Mat Perlman, launched a GoFundMe on June 12 that has, at the time of writing, reached $18,743 of its $20,000 goal.

"It’s going to be different but it’s the only way we can get back to where we need to get by making sure we keep everyone safe. We’re not taking away rights or your right to have fun or anything, but we’re ensuring that you and everyone else who comes is safe." ‐ Erick Casselman, Park Theatre owner

"I was being too stubborn and pig-headed to admit I needed help and the responses from people have been amazing," Casselman says. "It’s humbling, and it shows you you’re doing something cool and people really love it and appreciate it."

The future, as ever, remains uncertain. Operating at half-capacity "isn’t 100 per cent sustainable," Casselman says, "but I won’t be bleeding as much money as I have been. It will allow me to mitigate the losses and not put so much of my neck on the line."

Over at the West End Cultural Centre, executive director Jason Hooper and his team are readying the venue for Saturday night’s Red Moon Road concert, the first instalment of Bring Your Own Mic, a new, ticketed, livestream concert series featuring Manitoba artists.

"I didn’t think we’d have an (in-person) audience for it and now it looks like we are going to have a small audience, so that makes it even better," Hooper says. "It’s been a lot of work to get here."

West End Cultural Centre manager Jason Hooper with his dog, Walter. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

West End Cultural Centre manager Jason Hooper with his dog, Walter. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

For one, the WECC didn’t have a paid gate for a streaming service. "So Eventbrite (a ticketing website) pretty much created one for us," Hooper says. "And they waived most of their fees, too, so we could keep a really low ticket price. We really wanted to see accessibility and get some eyeballs on it."

Tickets to the online concerts are just $2 plus a $1 fee. Hooper says the WECC has sold 80 tickets so far.

As for having people back in the venue, the WECC has new measures in place. In addition to keeping tables apart, the WECC is selling them in groups of four — so that it’s one household or bubble sitting together — as well as single and double seats in the mezzanine. Hand sanitizer will be available in the lobby entrance and the entrance into each washroom, and one bathroom stall will be available at a time.

On Saturday morning at 8 a.m., Bison Janitorial is fogging the venue using a safe, all-natural disinfectant called Anolyte which, per the Bison Janitorial website, "kills 99.9 per cent of viruses in 10 minutes." People are able to enter a room 30 minutes after fogging, and it’ll be done well before the audience arrives.

"I was sitting on a Zoom meeting with the International Association of Venue Managers and somebody suggested that (fogging) would be what we’d have to do," Hooper says. "They were talking about arenas, and I’d never heard about that before. So, when I talked to Bison about how we might have the place cleaned between events, they said they could do this."

Like most venues, Hooper is taking things week to week. Bring Your Own Mic virtual concerts are scheduled throughout the summer, and "there’s still stuff going in the calendar — but whether or not we’ll be able to have them will depend on infection rates and second wave," he says.

"We’re doing our best to keep things safe."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.