New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday announced that the state will begin expanding gathering capacity limitations in April. The new guidelines will allow for concerts and other live events to take place after a year-long shutdown, albeit with significantly reduced capacity limits in place.
Cuomo announced the news in a press conference on Wednesday, though the news was largely overshadowed by questions about the sexual harassment scandal that has engulfed his administration in the past week.
As Cuomo’s office noted in its daily NYS Coronavirus Update, “Beginning April 2, event, arts and entertainment venues can reopen at 33% capacity, up to 100 people indoors and up to 200 people outdoors. If all attendees present proof of a negative test prior to entry, capacity can increase up to 150 people indoors and up to 500 people outdoors. Social distancing and face coverings will be required for all attendees, as well as strict adherence to all applicable Department of Health guidance. We are in an urgent race against the virus and we need to continue the trend of the infection rate moving down and the vaccination rate going up. New Yorkers will get through this as long as we stay tough and keep this momentum heading in the right direction.”
The caveat regarding higher capacities for audiences that can prove negative test results appears to point back to the Excelsior Pass, the state’s mobile app designed in partnership with IBM. The Excelsior Pass, currently in pilot testing during games at Madison Square Garden and Barclays Center, will “use proven, secure technology to confirm an individual’s vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test through a confidential data transfer to help fast-track the reopening of theaters, stadiums, and other businesses in accordance with New York State guidelines.” While the app is still being tested and there has been no indication that it would be legally mandated, it would theoretically help venues manage audience testing status and become eligible for the slightly increased capacity.
Various entities in the theater sector have already indicated plans for adapted events at various non-profit theaters in New York City including the Apollo Theater, the Shed, Park Avenue Armory, Harlem Stage, the Public Theater, and more. Per The New York Times, Lincoln Center has announced a plan to open ten outdoor performance and rehearsal spaces on April 7th.
While these initial reopening moves for the New York live entertainment industry mark an important first step, that step may not be big enough to get much of the state’s venues back up and running. On the theatrical side, Broadway productions, an essential component of the New York entertainment sector, will remain stalled. As Broadway League president Charlotte St. Martin told the NYT, “For a traditional Broadway show, the financial model just doesn’t work. How do we know that? Because shows that get that kind of attendance close.”
For concert venues and clubs, the new regulations offer little in the way of sustainable solutions to the shutdown. Explained Blue Note Entertainment Group president Steve Bensusan, “It doesn’t make financial sense for the Blue Note [in Greenwich Village] to open with only 66 seats for shows.”
Michael Swier, who owns Bowery Ballroom and Mercury Lounge, told the Times that the social distancing and mask mandates push the true capacity of his venues down to roughly 20%, making reopening financially untenable.
Peter Shapiro, the decorated impresario who owns New York concert venues like Brooklyn Bowl and The Capitol Theater, is encouraged by the developments but will not make any immediate moves based on the new announcement.
“We are very happy to see things moving in a positive direction,” Shapiro told Live For Live Music. “We are going to continue to watch closely as the City and State implement the new rules and look forward to re-opening when the time is right for each of our venues. We have to juggle many factors when determining the right moment to re-open, but we can’t wait for that moment and it’s coming.”
This gradual reopening is meant to be a means to an end, and many New York venues and promoters have indicated that they will not resume operations until a 100% capacity is feasible. While some experts and industry insiders have pointed to this summer with some hope for full-capacity events, the timetable remains dependent on the ever-developing COVID-19 picture. As of now, New York is still clocking more than 6,000 new cases per day, though increasing vaccine availability and continued practice of masking and social distancing should aid in driving those numbers downward.
New York lawmakers are also working on various initiatives to kickstart the arts in the interim. Cuomo’s reopening of arenas and venues in New York came after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently announced the city’s “Open Culture” initiative, which will open up to 115 designated streets in all five NYC boroughs to be used for ticketed performing arts events throughout the spring, summer, and fall. The state is also sponsoring the NY PopsUp festival, featuring over 300 performances from a variety of artists across the state over 100 days beginning February 20th and continuing through Labor Day.