By the time Connecticut’s bars, music spots and independent arts venues finally are able to reopen after being shuttered for months amid the coronavirus pandemic, some of them will live on only in pleasant memories of what our world used to be like in pre-COVID-19 days.
This is not just idle talk.
At least one popular and beloved longtime southern Connecticut music bar, The Acoustic on Fairfield Avenue in Bridgeport’s Black Rock section, already closed back in May.
But with help from the School of Rock in Fairfield, its owner announced July 2 that The Acoustic would “be sticking it out for at least a few more months” in hopes of finding a more permanent solution.
All over the state, however, arts venues from the tiniest bars to the biggest theaters are trying to find ways to hold on and run as lean as they can — at a time when they are mostly closed but still paying rent or mortgages, utilities and insurance payments — as they wait for the chance to reopen and reconnect with patrons.
Phase three of the state’s reopening strategy, which would have allowed bars to open as of Monday, was delayed indefinitely a few weeks ago as a result of the resurgence of COVID-19 infections in many other states.
Most venue owners who spoke to Hearst Connecticut Media agree with that decision, even though it didn’t make things any easier for them.
Meanwhile, some the state’s music venues have been livestreaming a few shows in order to stay connected with their communities.
Some music bars that also are restaurants, such as Next Door on Humphrey Street in New Haven, The Windmill on Hollister Street in Stratford and The Note Kitchen on Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, even have begun doing some live shows — mostly solo and duo shows — either outdoors or in some cases indoors.
But many of Connecticut’s favorite venues remain dark.
“We’re just playing a waiting game,” said Paul Mayer, owner of the padlocked Cafe Nine at State and Crown streets in New Haven, who has kept things going at Cafe Nine for 16 years, bringing in acts large and small since buying it from founder Mike Reichbart.
“I think that it’s the right decision that the governor’s made to postpone the reopening, but I’d like things to get back to normal at some point,” said Mayer, a musician himself who under the stage name Nervus Chet Pervis was the bass player for The Big Bad Johns and The Swaggerts back in 1990s and early 2000s.
But “I think we need help,” Mayer said. “Venues that can’t reopen, they need help. We’re all going to need help in order to be sustainable.”
Mayer and Cafe Nine’s fans in the community have raised more than $25,000 to date, including $21,205 in a current GoFundMe ‘Virtual Tip Jar’ campaign, to support Cafe Nine’s temporarily laid-off staff while they wait to get back to work.
Meanwhile, “the business is sitting idle,” while Mayer continues to pay rent, utilities, insurance and other expenses.
He said he has not yet given a thought to reopening, which right now would require serving food. Cafe Nine has a small kitchen but hasn’t cooked in-house in years.
“No, that’s not worth it to me. ... I don’t see it being worth the expense,” Mayer said. “It’s just a possibility to lose more money.”
At Cafe Nine, “all the money is made on alcohol sales,” he said.
How long can he hang on without money coming in?
“I think that reckoning point ... is going to come the first of the year,” at least for Cafe Nine, Mayor said.
Cafe Nine, like many other venues in the area — including College Street Music Hall in New Haven, the Space Ballroom in Hamden, the Wall Street Theater in Norwalk and others — is a member of the new National Independent Venue Association. NIVA has been conducting a “Save Our Stages” lobbying campaign to convince Congress to provide additional assistance to arts venues.
U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3, was sympathetic to their concerns but wasn’t overly optimistic that additional assistance will be forthcoming, citing political reasons.
“The coronavirus pandemic has been catastrophic for the Arts, Entertainment, and Hospitality industries in Connecticut and across the country,” DeLauro said in a written statement. “Supporting these industries shouldn’t be about politics — it should be about supporting our local economies and protecting local businesses. Unfortunately, Republican inaction has left these vital industries to largely fend for themselves.
“They are in desperate need of help, more than what Congress has previously provided. I fought hard to secure relief in the CARES Act,” DeLauro said. “This legislation provided $150 million to state arts and humanities agencies to provide grants and support arts organizations, museums, libraries, and other organizations during the coronavirus crisis. The CARES Act also included $75 million for the National Endowment for the Arts and $75 million for the National Endowment of the Humanities. Additionally, we modified the PPP loan in the The Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act to expand the length of loan forgiveness from 8 weeks to 24 weeks to benefit these industries.
“House Democrats didn’t stop with CARES. We worked to pass the Heroes Act which builds on the funding in CARES, but Senate Republicans have failed to act,” she said. “Just this past week, the committee, on which I sit that determines federal spending, passed the fiscal year 2021 spending bill that includes $170 million for NEA and NEH. This is $7.75 million over the fiscal year 2020 enacted level and nearly $140 million over the President’s budget request.
“Outside of emergency relief packages, that included broad-based programs, I’m also fighting for targeted relief to restaurants and bars,” DeLauro said. “I’m fighting to pass the RESTAURANTS Act which, among other investments, would contribute $760 billion in annual sales in the broader restaurant economy, directly employing 11 million people. The RESTAURANTS Act would establish a $120 billion restaurant revitalization fund at the Department of Treasury.
“The music, arts, restaurant, and bar industries needs this relief — and I will continue fighting to deliver for the people of Connecticut,” she said.
Over in Fairfield, John Reid, artistic director and executive director of Fairfield Theatre Co., has two venues that have been dark for months: the 250-seat StageOne and the 600-capacity The Warehouse.
“We’ve been following very closely the governor’s strategy for reopening Connecticut and when phase three was delayed or postponed, it was very disappointing,” although understandable, Reid said.
But even if phase three had gone forward, “it didn’t allow a lot of opportunity for a live performance venue like Fairfield Theatre Co. in terms of capacity,” but it did allow some opportunity for both indoors and outdoors shows to move forward, he said.
While closed for shows, “we’ve been trying to stay in touch with our members. We’ve done some livestreaming” with artists with tip jars out, Reid said. “But we’re a live performance venue.
“As we look at it ... none of us have ever dealt with a worldwide pandemic” and “while some agencies have been better prepared than others, no one has dealt with it before,” he said. “Obviously, public safety is the most important thing.”
But he said he thought a venue the size of FTC, which is much smaller than a music shed or arena — but still employs 45 people during regular times — could come up with ways to manage “these relatively small gatherings safely.”
Those making decisions need also to consider how venues such as FTC — which normally does about 400 shows a year — contribute to the vitality of the areas they’re in, he said.
“In pre-COVID times, we could have capacity shows at both venues,” with more than 800 people sometimes coming in at once, “which has an economic impact on all the other businesses that are reopening” nearby, Reid said.
With arts venues closed, “You’re really losing a business and revenue generator for the town,” he said.
Arts venues “are looking for some help ... not because we’re special,” but because they were among the first things to close and will be among the last to reopen, “and because of the impact on others,” Reid said, making clear that he recognizes that Congress and the state have other priorities.
“It’s one of many important considerations” in the mix, he said.
“When our doors are closed, it’s not just that the venue is taking a hit,” Reid said. “It’s all the surrounding venues and people.”
Keith Mahler runs Premier Concerts as well as the College Street Music Hall in New Haven, the Space Ballroom in Hamden and the Westville Music Bowl at the former Connecticut Tennis Center in New Haven, which saw what were to be its first concerts delayed until next year because of the pandemic.
He said he thought Connecticut was handling the reopening strategy “in exemplary fashion.”
But for Mahler, as well as for all venue owners, “There’s rent, there’s mortage payments, there’s utilities, All of that still needs to be paid, regardless of whether you’re open or not.”
During these unprecedented times, “you do what we have to do,” said Mahler, who is a member of NIVA. “Well-capitalized companies stay in business. That’s why you manage your business appropriately.”
He said his businesses will make it, but others may not.
“NIVA’s position is that 90 percent of the independent venues are closing. We’ve issued a statement that we will be among the 10 percent,” he said.
“It’s painful. There’s just nothing you can do,” Mahler said. “The governor’s orders are the governor’s orders” and “the holdback of phase three is the result of the other idiots around the county.”
But “the show’s going to go on — it’s only a matter of when, not if,” he said. “We’ll be back in both venues. There are a lot of shows booked. ... People want live music, and it will come back — as long as people behave.”
Suzanne Cahill, president of the nonprofit Wall Street Theater in Norwalk, which resurrected the former Globe Theater three years ago after it spent 20 years closed, has been doing a few weddings, livestreaming events and corporate functions during what otherwise has been a time when the theater is dark.
“Individuals, at a time when we’re all in our homes, we’re looking for entertainment. I mean, that’s what sustains us in these times,” said Cahill. “I think now .... it’s important for people to understand that the arts are an important part of our lives and our community.
“It important for us to lobby for funding to help sustain all of the arts venues,” said Cahill, also a member of NIVA.
She’s hoping for the best.
“We do have some smaller shows planned for the fall,” Cahill said. “The hope is that we will be open with some limited live programming in the fall. ... We all have to understand that we’re all in this together.”
Brian Phelps, owner of Toad’s Place in New Haven and a NIVA member, said he wasn’t surprised when phase three was delayed.
He’s hoping to be able to reopen in August.
“Right now I’m looking at Aug. 20. ... I’m hoping that Aug. 20 (Gov. Ned Lamont) releases some type of decree where places like mine ... can at least open to some degree — with face masks.”
Toad’s will be able to weather the storm, Phelps said.
“I can hold on a long time. I have some cash reserved. ... But I still want to keep rolling,” he said. “I’m holding on,” but “right now, nothing is going on.”
But “I’m worried about other places, too,” he said.
“You need the places around the country, because that’s how the bands go on tour,” Phelps said. “It’s really important that a lot of these places stay open. ... This should not be a political issue. It should be bipartisan.”
Tony Heslin, owner of The Note Kitchen in Bethel, said he recently reopened and began doing music again — on a smaller scale — “just over a week ago.”
“We used to do music every night — seven nights a week ... sometimes three (acts) a day,” he said.
When the coronavirus hit, “we shut down the whole restaurant” and Heslin, who also owns Notch 8 in Bethel, began serving both restaurants’ menues for takeout out of the Notch 8 kitchen.
He reopened The Note Kitchen in mid-June, “got a couple of weeks under our belt, then in July kicked off our open mic on Monday nights,” he said. “It went really well. You know, it made you feel almost normal for a change.”
But right now, “it’s the patio or nothing. You’re really dependent on the weather. So if it rains, the night is ruined. If it’s really hot out, the day and night is ruined.”
He’s been very careful with the music so far, moving it to an earlier hour, from 6 to 9 p.m.
“So for now, the musicians are playing for meals and tips ... and to tell you the truth, the tips have been great!” Heslin said. “A lot of times it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you’ve got people playing to an empty room. But overall, it works.”
At The Windmill in Stratford, where the restaurant is open and even has begun doing some solo and duo music again, manager Kelly Doria said it’s been “hit or miss.”
The coronavirus shut The Windmill down at the height of its winter and spring busy season — St. Patrick’s Day, its busiest day of the year — and while it’s back open now, it cut back from being open for 84 hours a week (11 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week) to 45 hours a week.
It’s currently closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and while all of The Windmill’s employees are back at work, they’re working fewer hours.
“Most employees are OK with it,” Doria said. “We’re doing OK. I would say our sales are down probably 30-40 percent. We had a nice crowd last night for dinner, but Wednesday was really slow.”
The Windmill, which is located in a partially residential neighborhood that is sort of off-the-beaten-path — and has served that neighborhood and the town for 86 years now — has been doing music both outside and inside since June 20.
“A lot of the time we’ve been doing it inside. But when we’ve been doing it outside, thank God nobody’s been complaining,” she said.
The Windmill also is doing music earlier than it used to, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. rather than the old 8 p.m. to midnight.
“We’re just trying to get the word out that we’re open,” Doria said. “... It’s definitely not normal, but it’s as normal as we can get right now.”
For Carlos Wells, co-owner of The State House at State and Chapel streets in New Haven, “We’re along for the ride. We’re kind of in that really difficult spot of wanting to be open and not wanting to go under ... and wanting to be safe.
“Even when we reopen, I don’t know what capacity is going to look like for us,” said Wells, also a member of NIVA. “We’re still in our infancy as a business. ... I wish I could know ... exactly how we’re going to fare.”
“We really don’t know” what’s going to happen,” but “we’re hopeful,” Wells said. “We’re being as careful as can be with finances so that we can open when they give the word.”