At last: Greater Cincinnati live music venues prepare to reopen (they hope)

The new Heritage Bank Center signage, formerly U.S. Bank Arena. Source: U.S. Bank Arena Facebook
The new Heritage Bank Center signage, formerly U.S. Bank Arena. Source: U.S. Bank Arena Facebook

Pandemic devastated the entertainment business, but signs point to a bounce-back.

Just as they were the first to shut down as a contagious, potentially lethal virus tore through our country just a little over a year ago, live music venues will now be the last to reopen.

Although much of Ohio has returned to normal in terms of going out to bars and restaurants, we’re not enough out of the woods yet to have thousands gathered together for a live concert. Still, both Kristin Ropp, vice president and general manager of the Heritage Bank Center, and Rosemarie Moehring, director of marketing at MEMI, which operates Riverbend, PNC Pavilion, the Taft Theatre and the new Icon Music Center at the Banks (to name a few), are feeling optimistic about having live music in 2021.

“I saw something pop on my social media from a year ago when we were just a month into the pandemic,” Ropp said. “It was me commiserating about how much I missed public events. But I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been. I attribute that to the vaccines and getting out of the flu season. The general feel of the industry is that outdoor events will return by July and indoor by fall.

“(Ohio) SB 22 allows us to ignore DeWine’s orders after June. We’ll still use common sense. We don’t question the need to take precautions, but we want to give people an outlet for entertainment if they choose to take it, if they are vaccinated and feel comfortable. The few times I’ve gone out, you can see people with pandemic fatigue; they’re just done.”

Added Moehring, “Things are gearing up. We’ve gone from zero to 60. Everyone is optimistic because of the vaccines and the cases lowering.”

Ropp also said that in the past two weeks, she’s almost “back to doing what I used to do. My kids come home and I’m exhausted again, but not from walking the dogs five times.” Instead of brainstorming ways to reopen the center as safely and touchless as possible, she’s back to programming, juggling dates for shows and the regular-season schedule for the Cincinnati Cyclones, their minor-league hockey team that will open its season in the fall. Unlike pro sports, a minor league team can’t afford limited capacity nearly as much as pro sports.

“Pro leagues can get away with diminished capacity because they have TV revenues,” Ropp said. “For a minor league team, I need people in the seats, buying beers and hot dogs.”

Although the Heritage wasn’t in danger of shutting down due to strong financial backing from ownership, it had to furlough several employees (though one broadcaster used the time off to land a job in the NHL).

“We always paid 100% medical, even for furloughed employees and their spouses,” Ropp said. “A handful are still furloughed. We’re on reduced hours. We’re waiting to see what will happen between now and June. People don’t commit to anything that far in advance anyway, unless it’s Paul McCartney or some once-in-a-lifetime event.”

According to Moehring, MEMI employees spent most of the pandemic working on the Icon Music Center. Isn’t it a little odd to open a live music venue during an economic shutdown?

“It actually started before COVID, so we had to put the brakes on,” Moehring said. “We stayed the course, and it allowed us to justify keeping everyone employed. Ironically, (the pandemic) allowed us to take our time. We’re usually still painting walls five minutes before the doors open.”

Since limited capacity and social distancing are contrary to the entire concertgoing experience, Rupp and Moehring are adopting a wait-and-see approach. Ropp said it helps that the Heritage’s first scheduled post-pandemic show is Michael Buble on Aug. 20.

“With Buble, nobody is rushing the stage,” she said. “With Five Finger Death Punch, there’d be no way. It’s hard enough to get drunk people to sit where they’re supposed to in normal times. But we need every seat sold, we need food and beverage. It’s going to look different. We’re going to create as many touchless surfaces as possible, toilets, sinks. Scanning tickets will be on your phone, which will be fun for my mother to navigate.”

Ropp lamented that it was the venue’s responsibility to manage safety and social distancing, but on Zoom calls with health officials, she said nobody could really give any guidance.

“It’s ever evolving,” she said. “I’m not going to say social distancing is impossible, but it will be very difficult to maintain, even with increased capacity. It’s hard not to get mad. I feel like we’ve been the punching bag of this pandemic, and our industry affects so many others, restaurants and hotels. I wanted to go to Holy Grail for lunch the other day and found out they don’t bother opening on Mondays and Tuesdays anymore. Something has to give. Just let me operate even if you don’t want to come.”

The first tentative MEMI show is Luke Bryan at Riverbend on June 10. The Riverbend summer slate is full, including Cincinnati stalwarts like Jimmy Buffett and Rod Stewart. Thus far, only the hard rock band Disturbed has canceled without a reschedule date. The Taft Theatre tentatively plans to reopen in the fall, as it’s indoor, seated, and requires 100% capacity to make it worthwhile.

“(The pandemic) has been frustrating but we totally understand,” Moehring said. “When a tour goes out, they’ll have to make sure all the states are on the same pace, because they’ll be there in a few months. I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and there have been times where I’ve been like, ‘Oh god, another concert.’ But I will never take live music for granted again.”

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