Sonoma County entertainment venues welcome back audiences for live events

After nearly two years of on-and-off-again restrictions prompted by the coronarvirus pandemic, the people who run Sonoma County’s live entertainment venues are embracing the latest loosening of public health rules with a large dose of cautious optimism.

That means welcoming back audiences for live events that were put on pause or canceled in the county amid local rules geared to the omicron surge.

Over the weekend, doors were wide open at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, where the Santa Rosa Symphony performed Saturday and Sunday, as well as the small Lost Church nightclub in downtown Santa Rosa which was open Sunday. The venues reported good attendance, but still not back to pre-pandemic levels.

“I don’t know what normal looks like now, and it’s really hard to say,” said Jacob Yarrow, executive director of the Green Music Center. “We’re continuing safety precautions. We’re checking our visitors’ vaccination status, and we’re continuing masking inside. We do want to be cautious.”

On Friday, Sonoma County lifted its monthlong ban on large indoor gatherings, and the state’s universal mandate to wear masks indoors expires for all but unvaccinated people at the end of Tuesday. The mandate affecting schools also remains in place.

Venue administrators who took a severe hit during the latest Sonoma County shutdown say they are treading carefully back into a landscape of fuller houses and bookings.

Bryce Dow-Williamson, general manager at the Lost Church, said he’s watching the statistics on new coronavirus omicron variant cases and checking the federal Center for Disease Control guidelines for updates.

“We’ve been cautious in moving over to just requiring vaccination proof only, rather than also including proof of negative virus tests,” Dow-Williamson said. “We recommend masks when you’re not drinking. I think we’re getting closer to this being the new normal.”

His venue seats 100, while the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University has an indoor capacity of 1,000, but the challenges are essentially the same. Managers must protect not only their own patrons, but also the visiting artists they schedule for performances.

“We’re working with touring artists, and they ask that we continue to require masks,” Yarrow explained.

Throughout the pandemic, a range of state and local public health orders, from mask mandates to bans on large gatherings, have been imposed in response to surges in corornavirus infections.

The first series came with onset of the pandemic in March 2020, the second with the rise of cases and deaths linked to delta variant and a third with the highly infectious omicron variant over the past several months.

The economic impact of the pandemic on the arts has been daunting, with the two largest entertainment venues in Sonoma County reporting losses in the six figures.

Income for 2021 fell to $2 million less than 2019 at Green Music Center, Yarrow said.

Luther Burbank Center for the Arts reported $1,769,670 for first six months months of earned revenue for the current 2021-2022 season, compared to $74,833 for the same period last season during a complete shutdown. For comparison, pre-COVID, during the first six months of the 2019-2020, earned income was $2,469,157.

Luther Burbank Center presents events year-round, with the majority of performances taking place September through June. Earned income includes ticket sales, education program fees and concessions. The fiscal year runs from July 1 through June 30.

The pandemic has had a serious impact on attendance at live events. Yarrow at Green Music Center estimated that attendance has been about 75% of what was expected in the past.

The decrease in attendance at LBC events over the past two years has ranged from 10% to 30%, said Rick Nowlin executive director of the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa

Even as venues welcome back live audiences, managers and directors know that patrons have uneven comfort levels about attending large events.

On Saturday night, a burlesque show presented by an independent promoter played to a mostly maskless audience at the HopMonk Tavern in Sebastopol, but a spokesman for the venue said precautions will continue there.

The management at HopMonk will meet Tuesday to outline safety policies for the near future, said Bill DeCarli, director of music for HopMonk Presents. There are also HopMonk Taverns in Sonoma and Novato.

“Things are changing daily at this point. If you ask me now, I’d say we’d require proof of vacation and masks inside, at least this weekend,” DeCarli said Monday. “But the county has lifted the mask order” — effective Wednesday — “and is moving towards relying on personal responsibility. We’re just glad to bring the music back.”

The Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma opened its live production of “Amy and the Orphans” to a mask-wearing audience of about 50 in its 111-seat performance space on Friday night. The show also will be live-streamed starting Friday.

The theater expects to require proof of vaccination and masking indoors, said Diane Dragone, executive director of the Cinnabar Theater.

“We prefer to stay on the safe side,” she said. “We are proceeding with our season and moving ahead and hoping people come back.”

Precautions will remain in place for many venues.

“Starting on Wednesday, vaccinated audience members won’t be required to wear masks, but they’re welcome to,” said Nowlin of Luther Burbank Center. “We continue to require proof of vaccination or a negative virus test. The cleaning and disinfecting we’ve been doing will continue.”

“There’s an uptick now. It feels like the momentum is building,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at [email protected] or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

Christin Hakim

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