On Sept. 28, the CHI Health Center was set to host California rock band the Eagles, and fans flocked to the arena from as far away as New Mexico. But some of them didn’t get the memo.
Three weeks before the show, the Eagles announced they would require attendees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID test to gain entry. A rapid test station was available outside the arena.
Ticket-takers were met mostly with cooperation from fans, but a handful were frustrated that they hadn’t heard about the requirements until they were in line for the concert. It was the first event at the arena with such restrictions, but it could become the norm. And it’s part of a rift within the events industry — particularly in Nebraska — where consistent COVID-19 guidelines are rare.
“There’s not a national standard, there hasn’t been anything standard in the COVID world to date,” said Marc Leibowitz, co-owner and founder of Omaha concert promotions company One Percent Productions.
As the live performances industry plunges forward into 2022, many artists and performers out on the road remain concerned about the spread of COVID-19, and countless others are yet to tour at all. Venues have had to adapt to a constantly changing environment in a time caught between complete shutdown and the familiarity of pre-pandemic life.
“‘In-between time’ is a really good way to describe it, because we’re inching closer towards normal, but we’re just not quite there yet,” said Kristyna Engdahl, the director of communications at the Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority.
If “normal” exists, it could still be more than a year away. Douglas County’s COVID-19 case numbers have tumbled in October, but the county’s transmission rate is still high, according to the CDC, which recommends people wear masks indoors.
Some Omaha arts and music venues are seeing steady attendance. Some are struggling to keep their most attractive shows on the schedule. Most are operating in a limbo state where there are no sure things, and long-deliberated plans are subject to change.
But those in charge, like Omaha Performing Arts President and CEO Joan Squires, recognize a need in the community for live performances and are intent on ensuring they continue.
“It’s about being with other people, especially after the past 18 months — but doing so as safely as possible,” Squires said.
Omaha Performing Arts’ first indoor event after the start of the pandemic was in October 2020 when singer-songwriter Willy Porter performed for a socially distanced crowd. The Omaha Performing Arts calendar has been booked since. When “CATS” came to The Orpheum in late September, it marked the first time a Broadway production had been in Omaha since “Les Miserables” in January 2020. Masks are required inside Omaha Performing Arts’ venues.
“If anything, this last year has reminded us just how much we treasure live theater and sharing the experience with an audience,” Squires said.
But Omaha Performing Arts’ bounceback has not been immune to the same ongoing turbulence felt across the events industry. Dashboard Confessional’s acoustic tour, which included an Oct. 15 stop at the Holland Performing Arts Center, was canceled in early September.
Smaller Omaha venues like The Waiting Room Lounge and Reverb Lounge, both owned by One Percent Productions, are having similar issues, Leibowitz said. Bands are canceling tours on short notice, and many other acts just aren’t touring.
“We’re trying to get back to where we have bigger crowds, but at the same time, the touring bands that can draw the bigger crowds just aren’t back on the road right now,” Leibowitz said.
He estimates around half of the artists that would typically draw sizable crowds to his venues have chosen to stay home so far.
For much of 2021, The Waiting Room has relied on comedy shows, cover bands and trivia nights to bring people in. Keeping higher-profile national acts on the books has been tricky.
The Pixies were set to play The Waiting Room’s outdoor stage on Sept. 16, and indie rock band Dinosaur Jr. was scheduled at The Waiting Room on Sept. 19. Both tours were cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.
With a busy calendar in place for the remainder of the year, Leibowitz is hoping for the best but bracing for the possibility of more cancellations.
“There’s very little we can do when an artist wants to cancel,” Leibowitz said. “We’re sort of at the artist’s mercy in this business, and they get to decide what happens, really.”
So, when a band like the Eagles comes to CHI Health Center with safety requests, MECA and other organizations implement them swiftly.
“To be able to accommodate a wide variety of shows, we need to be nimble, to be flexible and to figure out how to accommodate the unique needs of each show as they explore Omaha as a potential tour site,” Engdahl said.
But one artist’s requests could be completely different from another’s, and locally imposed guidelines could shake up a touring act’s itinerary from one day to the next. Blake Shelton’s concert on Aug. 18 was the first at the CHI Health Center since Nebraska’s directed health measures regarding capacity were lifted in April. He performed to a full-capacity crowd, and MECA recommended audience members wear masks. Two nights later, Shelton played Denver where a mask mandate was in place.
“Our business is navigating a lot of uncertainties,” Engdahl said. “I think touring artists are trying to figure it out, too. And many of them, just like us, have to figure it out as they go.”
Leibowitz said he thinks nationwide standards for concertgoers need to be put in place. The variability in COVID-19 requirements from venue to venue and state to state is discouraging artists from touring in the first place, he said.
“If there was an understanding with people that if you want to see music, you have to do X and Y, then they would be better off,” Leibowitz said. “I think it would make less tours cancel.”
The Rose Theater is juggling many of the same questions. Its first production of the 2021-2022 season, Disney’s “Descendants,” ran from Sept. 10 to Oct. 10, and tickets sales were strong, said artistic director Matt Gutschick. He can tell that audiences are happy to be back in the kid-focused theater.
“The gasps are a little louder than they were before, and the applause is a little louder than it was before,” he said.
But the company’s next steps, even a few months out, have been hard to nail down, he said.
Gutschick and his colleagues expected the COVID-19 vaccine to be available to children ages 5 to 11 by this point and decided not to require masks or social distancing at “Descendants.”
But a vaccine for children younger than 12 is not expected to be available until November at the earliest, so Gutschick said they will likely require masking and social distancing at The Rose until January.
There’s more uncertainty when he thinks about planning for the 2022-2023 season. Would a large 30-person cast be possible? How many shows will the audience have an appetite for?
“Those are variables that we probably have to take our best shot at just making choices and rolling with them, and staying flexible where we can,” he said.
Still, Gutschick thinks it’s important to appreciate that plays at The Rose — and live performances around Omaha — are possible again.
“To have it back means that we are asked to appreciate it in deeper ways,” he said.
And despite the fluctuations in COVID-19 cases and the uncertainty involved in putting on events in late 2021, Leibowitz and One Percent Productions are set to open a new concert venue early next year — the renovated and renamed Sokol Auditorium, now known as The Admiral. Leibowitz realizes the timing is odd, but he has faith that people will be ready for live music.
“You do kind of have to have blinders on,” he said. “You know, you don’t want to be naive about anything, and you don’t want to be careless. But you do have to just be glass half full, or else this industry will drive you insane.”