Brutal. Horrific. Devastating.
These are a few of the adjectives Seattle venue owners have been using this past week to describe the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak and moratorium on large gatherings. And that was before Gov. Jay Inslee increased social distancing restrictions Monday that would shut down all bars, restaurants and entertainment venues through the end of the month, halting what was left of Seattle’s live music industry like a hundred blown amplifiers.
A nervousness had already set in among Seattle’s independently owned music venues. Bartenders, security workers and sound techs have been laid off as venue owners scramble to figure out how to keep their businesses afloat as their calendars are wiped out.
“That’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it?” said Jed Smithson, owner of Fremont’s Nectar Lounge and the High Dive, with an uneasy laugh. “We don’t know how long this is going to go for.”
While the prohibition on gatherings of 50 people and more is slated to last through the rest of the month, Inslee had previously stated it’s likely to be extended. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended canceling such events for the next eight weeks. Local venue owners we spoke with were quick to acknowledge the need for social distancing, none openly taking issue with the ban. But the novel coronavirus and attempts to curb its spread have created a perilous situation for the city’s smaller, independently owned clubs.
After deciding to shutter the Royal Room last week, co-owner Wayne Horvitz said the club would be “out of money in a matter of days,” noting their “extremely slim” margins to begin with. Even before the ban, they’d already been hit by a string of cancellations. Still, the veteran pianist, composer and club owner was optimistic the Columbia City jazz room would be able to weather the economic storm, possibly taking out low-interest loans.
“I think if this thing lasts a month or less, we’re going to spend a good part of the year digging ourselves out from our debts,” he said last week. “It won’t be impossible. And if it goes on a lot longer, well, that’s a scenario that’s far worse than my own problems [laughs]. It’s not going to be whether the Royal Room closes. It’s going to be whether society as we know it exists.”
For others, the short-term outlook is bleaker.
Scott Behrens has been feeling a squeeze for years. Despite declining attendance, the owner of Lo-Fi Performance Gallery has had annual 5% rent increases on his funky South Lake Union spot beneath Interstate 5. No longer able to pay his part-time staffers, Behrens planned to open the bar by himself last Friday. Given recently lightened attendance, he didn’t expect any social distancing issues and figured he could double as bartender and door guy. He spent part of the day hunting down supplies needed to stay open. The two bottles of hand sanitizer Behrens had at the bar were stolen and he had to fend off another customer to snag the last bottle of surface cleaner at a Cash & Carry — the bare essentials for life in Quarantine City.
“I was at Lowe’s and I found a stack [of toilet paper] on top of a high shelf and used a 2 by 4 to whack ’em down so I could get those,” Behrens said.
Behrens has launched a GoFundMe campaign and has applied for several grants, including Seattle’s new small business grants awarding up to $10,000 to local establishments impacted by the coronavirus. Without some aid, Behrens said the club that’s hosted local musicians and long-running dance nights since 2004 would not survive a closure. “If I shut down for two weeks, I’m done. It’s over,” Behrens said. “I’ll be shutting the doors for good. It’s that bad.”
Up in Ballard, Tractor Tavern owner Dan Cowan expects to lose around $20,000 each month its doors are closed. And that’s after letting go of 14 part-timers and reducing staff to a skeleton crew of office employees who took pay cuts. He’s offered personal loans to help employees make rent and buy groceries. The 26-year-old club once survived a surprise $180,000 tax bill under Washington’s since-repealed Opportunity to Dance Tax, and Cowan expects to be able to ride out the latest turbulence as well. He’s not concerned about losing his lease, because really, who else would take it?
Many of the bands the Tractor booked for May are already rescheduling their tours, suggesting the impact will be more than a few weeks of lost revenue. While the moratorium on shows strips musicians of their primary source of income for an unknown duration, Cowan expects the local concert industry to bounce back in some form or another. “I think the industry will certainly be there in a strong way,” he said. “What the makeup of it will be — what clubs and stuff like that — I don’t know. … Hopefully you don’t get some major megapromoters coming in and buying up all the small clubs.”
Said Smithson: “I don’t think music dies because of this. Businesses may die and new ones will come in their place. But that’s, I guess, capitalism.”
Provided his landlords and other creditors are willing to work with him, Smithson believes the Nectar and High Dive have a “decent chance” of holding on until life as we knew it resumes. The unsettling part is not knowing when that will be.
“Thinking about a recession or a depression, it’s [usually] a slow-moving process. You have time to take a step down and take [another] step down,” he said. “This has been a free fall. And not knowing where the bottom is, it’s hard to maintain a positive stance.”