Coronavirus: Entertainment venues and beaches, still navigating first wave, brace for a second hit
Editor's note: COVID-19 killed tens of thousands in the Northeast, caused massive unemployment and wrecked the economy. In an ongoing series of stories, the USA TODAY Network Atlantic Group examines what the government got wrong in its response to the virus, what policies eventually worked — and why we remain vulnerable if the coronavirus strikes harder in the fall.
Like a lot of club owners, Danny Deutsch has some great stories about past gigs he has hosted at the Abilene Bar and Lounge, the self-described "corner saloon" he runs in Rochester.
Among those memorable shows was one that unfolded four years ago when an unknown Margo Price — later a Grammy nominee for Best New Artist — played an Abilene happy hour with no cover charge.
But like music venues large and small across the state, the Abilene Bar and Lounge's indoor stage is dark because of state coronavirus restrictions.
As the state's economy has been reopening, restrictions on dining and leisure destinations, such as beaches and state parks, have been lifted slowly.
But music venues — from the 100-capacity Abilene to the 16,000 capacity Bethel Woods Center for the Arts pavilion, on the site of the 1969 Woodstock festival in Sullivan County — remain shuttered and in limbo as restrictions on public gatherings remain in place.
"This has been the toughest of times," Deutsch said. "And it's been heart-wrenching to see people sick.
Now, as Deutsch and venue owners around the state pivot by moving music outdoors for smaller audiences, the potential for a second wave of the pandemic has thrown the future of live entertainment into further uncertainty. Through it all, Deutsch remains optimistic.
"I've got great 12 years of great times, 12 years of sweat and hard work into the place," he said. "We're not ready to give up the fight yet."
What hasn't worked
As venue operators gear up for a possible second wave, the impact of the pandemic's first five months shapes their livelihoods. Deutsch lauded Monroe County, City of Rochester and state officials for their handling of the crisis. But he had less than kind words for the federal government.
"I think it's been a series of mixed messages, a series of missed steps, from the Trump administration, from Day One, not admitting we have a problem," Deutsch said. "I don't think there is leadership in Washington. I do think there is leadership in New York State and I do think it trickles down to great leaders locally, as well.
"Rochester, New York State would be in a better position if the Trump administration had a better grasp of the pandemic early on."
The White House Press Office did not respond to a request seeking comment.
But underscoring confusion in New York State was the experience of John McAvoy, owner of the Turning Point in Piermont, a Rockland County village. McAvoy weeks ago sought to clarify the status of his entertainment venue, which serves food, as it relates to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's phased reopening plan.
McAvoy said he called Cuomo's office for guidance but got shuffled around and caught up in red tape. As far as getting clarification, McAvoy, whose venue remains closed, said, "My question was — where am I in this? Where do I fall in? I still don't know."
The USA Today Network reached out to Empire State Development on McAvoy's behalf and was referred to this website for guidance: https://www.businessexpress.ny.gov/app/nyforward. McAvoy said his reading of this website was that he could not open.
Wedding venues have been hit hard, as well.
Agathi Georgiou-Graham, owner of Arbor Loft and Arbor at the Port in Rochester, has seen most of her business evaporate due to the virus. The two venues used to do two to three events a week. Now they mostly sit empty as brides and grooms choose to table their weddings.
“It’s awful. It’s been devastating for the wedding industry,” said Georgiou-Graham. She sometime cries in frustration as the state has been so vague about reopening instructions.
Anticipating another possible wave, Toni Weasner, event planner for Calvary St. Andrews Sanctuary in Rochester, is trying to be creative. With the weather getting cooler in fall, brides will look for indoor options. She is looking at streaming options at the church and event space that will allow families and friends to view the day of celebration without being physically present.
Until last week, the state capped attendance at weddings to 50 people. But on Friday, a federal judge ruled wedding venues can hold up to 50% of their capacity, the same restriction afforded restaurants.
As far as beaches go, according to New York State Parks Public Information Officer Brian Nearing, Jones Beach on Long Island and other state-owned beach staff enforce all health and safety procedures put forth by the New York State Health Department.
At Rye Beach in the Town of Rye, while enforced by beach staff and officers, wearing masks has proven difficult to enforce.
"Basically for us, we have the proper policies enforced. It's a question of reminding people to follow those policies," said Gary Zuckerman, town supervisor. "For the most part they do, but we do have different reactions."
Zuckerman said that those who act belligerent may result in the police being called, though this has not been too much of an issue.
Eastern Dutchess County is home to a music venue and restaurant operated by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Daryl Hall. His band, Hall and Oates, christened the club on Halloween 2014.
Asked about that which has worked since the pandemic emerged, Daryl's House General Manager Pat Ryan said, "The shutdown worked. When everyone shut down it really felt like it came from one place, it came from the Governor's desk. We shut down. Broadway shut down. The state shut down. It was like, great, there's some leadership here. Let's keep everyone safe. Everyone took everything seriously."
Rye Beach Jones Beach in Wantagh have instituted social distancing, mask policies and capacity limits so beach-goers can stay safe and healthy.
"We have rangers that observe the beach and go onto the beach as well as signs about the policy around the beach," Zuckerman said. "No sporting activity such as volleyball, soccer, anything like that."
Zuckerman added that their policies are consistent with Cuomo and Westchester County Executive George Latimer's respective policies. Rye Beach also provides masks for those who don't have one.
Both Rye Beach and Jones Beach have implemented more thorough cleaning procedures and capacity limits on bathrooms.
What needs to be done
Cuomo spoke July 16 about a "second wave" of the pandemic in the context of the coronavirus surge in states across the country, outside of New York. He is anticipating a second wave in New York that would actually be a rebound of the current surge.
"That's not what we were anticipating as a second wave," he said. "...It's going to be man-made, all self-created."
Kim Cognatello, manager of Pete’s Saloon and Restaurant in Elmsford, said New Yorkers gearing up for a second wave, including those in the entertainment and leisure business, should keep doing what they've been doing: social distancing and wearing masks. Cognatello said that helped New York beat back the coronavirus. This approach could prove invaluable during a second wave.
"Look at how far we've come," she said.
In Binghamton, the Broome County Forum and the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena have been closed since March. Chris Marion, who is the head of both venues, is still waiting for guidance from the state as to when and how they can re-open.
But in terms of anticipating a second wave of the virus, Marion doesn’t foresee either venue to be open by then.
The forum and arena are both funded and run by Broome County. According to Marion, whether or not they will be able to shoulder the costs required for upgrades necessary to re-open will hinge on a federal stimulus bill that supports states, counties and municipalities.
“We can make significant improvements in public health by having more sanitized environments with the technology that exists right now, but it’s going to be very expensive, both labor-wise and in material and equipment,” Marion said. “I think we’ll be better off as a community and a society health-wise, but it’s going to take a lot of money that the owners of those types of buildings just don’t have right now.”
Beaches around New York have been monitoring the situation as it changes noting their policies are fluid and align with state regulations.
"Our policy has been constantly evolving," Zuckerman said. "The policy we have today isn't necessarily what we had when we reopened."
Like Rye Beach, Jones Beach and other state beaches will follow the state's department of health for further guidance.
It is important to remember that the beach season typically ends around Labor Day, which falls on Sept. 7 this year.
"If we're going to get a second wave in the fall, it'll be at a time that the beach is not open," Zuckerman said. "We're more concerned with what might happen next summer and the end of this summer."
And a robust response to a second wave could allow Pete's to return to its pre-pandemic program for live music, Cognatello said, without the scaled back bans and audience sizes that are in place now. And that in turn could bring in more customers.
Heather Clark, Maggie Gilroy and Mary Chao contributed to this report. John W. Barry: email@example.com, 845-437-4822, Twitter: @JohnBarryPoJo