Jeff McErlain & the Ohms at the Bitter End on June 9 / Everynight Charley Crespo

Rocking Without Restrictions: How NYC Music Clubs Responded to New Freedoms

Last Monday night, anyone passing through the doorway of The Bitter End had to stop at the electric thermometer on the wall. On Tuesday, that thermometer was unplugged. No one on Tuesday night asked for proof of vaccination.

Inside The Bitter End, the bartender, the waitress, and the venue owner all worked without wearing a mask for the first time since the music club reopened on April 9. Customers were standing at the bar without masks or social distancing. The musicians could ignore the white tape on the floor of the stage that previously marked social distancing from the fans in the front row. The partitions between the back tables were gone.

Governor Andrew Cuomo yesterday fulfilled the promise he made a week ago that he would lift most COVID-19 restrictions when 70 percent of adult New Yorkers received at least the first dose of their COVID-19 vaccination. That goal was achieved today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Given New York’s progress and the diminished risk of COVID-19 within the community, the governor lifted COVID-19 restrictions in most places, effective immediately.

No more social gathering limits. No more capacity limitations. No more social distancing. No more health screenings or collecting contact information for possible tracing. No more cleaning and disinfection mandates. The state’s COVID-era health guidelines are now optional for commercial settings. Unvaccinated individuals continue to be responsible for wearing masks, however, in accordance with the guidance from the CDC.

“What New York has done is extraordinary. Not only do we have the lowest COVID positivity rate in the United States of America, we have hit 70 percent vaccination ahead of schedule. We successfully deployed the weapon that will win the war, and New York led the nation,” Cuomo said today. “We led with nurse Sandra Lindsay, who was the first at Northwell to take that vaccine and to assure people it was safe. We’ve gone on to do more than 20 million vaccines, more per capita than any big state in the United States of America. Congratulations to New Yorkers because they are the ones who did it. We’re no longer just surviving—we’re thriving. The state mandates that have proven right and brought us through this pandemic are relaxed as of today, effective immediately.”

With the removal of the state’s minimum standard for reopening, businesses are free to choose to lift all or some restrictions, continue to adhere to the state’s archived guidance, or implement other health precautions for their employees and patrons. Businesses are also authorized to require masks and six feet of social distancing for employees and patrons within their establishments, regardless of vaccination status. Any mask requirements that businesses choose to implement must adhere to applicable federal and state laws and regulations, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Faces for Radio Duo with guest Seaton Hancock at the Red Lion on June 9 / Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo

How Does This Impact Large Music Venues?

New York State’s COVID restrictions remain in effect for large-scale indoor event venues – now defined as indoor venues that hold more than 5,000 attendees. Consistent with the state’s implementation of the CDC guidelines, proof of vaccination can be used to eliminate social distancing and remove masks for fully vaccinated individuals. Unvaccinated or unknown vaccination status individuals who are over the age of four must continue to present proof of a recent negative diagnostic COVID-19 test result and wear masks within the venue. However, social distancing can be reduced or eliminated between tested attendees, allowing venues to reach 100 percent capacity in all sections.

As such, restrictions remain in place for New York’s indoor venues with more than 5,000 attendees. Realistically, in New York City, this applies only to Barclays Center, Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall. Cuomo announced in May that Radio City Music Hall will admit only those patrons who present a vaccination card. Madison Square Garden’s first concert of 2021 will be a vaccination-only full-capacity show headlining the Foo Fighters on June 20, but so far that vax-only policy is not in place for other upcoming concerts.

To gain the economic benefits of a full-capacity event, many venues and musicians may opt to follow the trend of vaccination-only concerts. The trajectory is moving in that direction. Not that this will happen without controversy. Variety reported that anti-vaccine protesters picketed outside the Foo Fighters’ first full capacity tour stop at the Canyon Club in Agoura Hills, California. Reportedly, several dozen protesters carried signs reading “Foo Fighters fight to bring segregation back” and “Event for vaccinated only, unvaccinated not allowed.”

Mixed populations of music fans have already purchased tickets to upcoming concerts at Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden. Unless the regulations change again by the date of the shows, these venue operators will have to strategize a way to redistribute seating to separate the vaccinated and unvaccinated. Also not clear yet is what regulations, if any, will apply to large outdoor concerts at the Forest Hills Stadiumand Citi Field.

Gina D’Soto at Groove on June 9 / Photo by Everynight Charley Crespo

How Does This Impact Smaller Music Venues?

“So basically we can throw a hardcore show in a small venue where people are going to be on top of each other?” Drew Stone asked The Manhattan Beat. Stone is a filmmaker who promotes hardcore punk shows at Niagara and is the vocalist for Antidote NYHC.

The answer is yes. The expectation is that the unvaccinated will wear masks on an honor system, since the venues do not need to ask for documentation. Otherwise, masks, social distancing, temperature checks, and other safety precautions are left to the discretion of the small venue operators.

Some venues may not be ready to drop all restrictions so quickly, however. Paul Rizzo, owner of The Bitter End, for instance, has some tables and chairs by the bar that he would like to replace with standing room. He has to move slowly, however. He already sold those seats in advance for several upcoming shows.

Rockwood Music Hall and Terra Blues reopened last week as vaccination-only venues. Feinstein’s/54 Below, which will reopen later this month, also announced that it would be a vax-only venue. That policy is no longer required in order to achieve full capacity. Nomad will resume its live music program this week, and the timing is right; the restaurant can operate without the COVID-era restrictions.

“Since we are a performance venue, we have to adhere to different rules than the restaurants and bars,” the management at Terra Blues told The Manhattan Beat. “When we hear something regarding social distancing and performers from NIVA (The National Independent Venues Association) or another venue-directed operation, we will change our door policy. Right now, if we admit unvaccinated guests, we will not be allowed to offer standing room, so for now we will continue pre-ticketed tables only.”

The partitions have disappeared from between tables at Berlin, The Bowery Electric, Groove, The Red Lion, and Rue-B, among other venues. Graham Astuto, manager of Café Wha?, which was closed tonight, told The Manhattan Beat that he is eager to report for work tomorrow morning and remove the partitions and add more tables and chairs. The partitions remained at the Anyway Café tonight, but their ultimate removal seems likely because this would allow for the return of more tables and chairs for customers.

“Great news indeed!” Natasha Stolichnaya, manager of the Anyway Café, told The Manhattan Beat. “Yes, of course, we will remove those partitions and add extra tables. It is time to celebrate and we deserve it, damn it! We do have a slight obstacle, in that we do not have a storage space, but hopefully we will never need those things ever again so we can get rid of them for good.”

“Yes, we are lifting our restrictions with the state,” Jennifer “Blue” Gonzales, general manager of Arlene’s Grocery, told The Manhattan Beat. “We are still awaiting specifics that they say will be here today or tomorrow. Hopefully those also will be good news and we can keep having shows for all who want to attend.”

Where does this leave music clubs that have remained closed since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020? This would include Iridium, Lola, and the Village Vanguard, among others. None have announced reopening dates.

“Not sure on Lola still,” said Jesse Malin, co-owner of several East Village music clubs, including the Bowery Electric, Lola and Niagara. “Thinking about it.”