The coronavirus wiped out the summer concert season, and uncertainty has loomed beyond that.
But are Michigan’s Labor Day festivals and autumn events salvageable after all?
Some key players in the local events industry are increasingly optimistic it’s possible, following an intensive series of talks with state officials that began in late May.
On Monday, a group of more than 100 event promoters, festival producers, sports executives and venue operators submitted a package of proposed reopening guidelines to Michigan’s tourism agency. The committee, convened by Pure Michigan at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s request, includes many Detroit heavyweights – Live Nation, the Red Wings, Pistons, Lions, Detroit Jazz Festival, Arts, Beats & Eats and others – along with representatives from fairs and performing arts centers across the state.
They’re hoping Whitmer will adopt their recommendations, compiled with direction from national health institutes and trade associations, to accelerate the return of certain mass gatherings – albeit at reduced capacities and with strict social-distancing rules.
“There’s a sign of hope here that events can come back sooner than we might have thought,” said Dave Clark, president of Live Nation Michigan. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel now.”
As things stand under Michigan’s six-stage Safe Start Plan, which was established during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, large events and gatherings are banned until Phase 6 – meaning when a vaccine is available or community spread has zeroed out.
The entertainment committee is urging the governor to move big gatherings up into Phase 5, where events could take place under an extensive set of health guidelines and attendance restrictions. Most of the state, including metro Detroit, is now in Phase 4, with parts of northern Michigan entering Phase 5 this week.
“Everybody is trying to move the needle,” said Jon Witz, a veteran festival producer whose events include Arts, Beats & Eats and Winter Blast. “To say we need a cure or vaccine before you can put on an event is a really strong statement when there are so many other businesses that can already operate.”
Notably, Witz and company are asking Whitmer to ditch the strict capacity counts that have been intrinsic to the reopening process – the staggered maximums of “10 persons,” “100 persons” and so on, which have guided the thinking since March.
Instead, event producers seek crowd flexibility based on their physical footprints. Attendance caps, they argue, should be dictated by square footage or acreage.
Specifically, their recommendations call for 50% capacity at outdoor venues without fixed seating; 25% outdoors with fixed seating; 40% indoors without fixed seating; and 20% indoors with fixed seating.
“If I have a 20-acre festival site, why should I be limited to 500 attendees?” said Witz.
Moreover, event producers argue they’re able to enforce social distancing more effectively than many of the businesses now back up and running: Festivals and concerts are already required to enlist security personnel, and police are usually on-site.
The recommendations submitted to the state Monday also include sanitation and health protocols, outlining social-distancing measures at performance areas and other points of congestion, such as ticket windows, concessions stands and restrooms. The guidelines would be subject to ongoing 30-day review.
The plans entail “radical changes to the way we would operate,” Witz said. In the case of Arts, Beats & Eats in early September, that might mean fewer vendors, new foot-traffic patterns and the elimination of the national stage, where thousands typically congregate for the fest’s headlining bands.
Dave Lorenz, vice president of Pure Michigan, said the proposals will be vetted by state health and labor officials, then forwarded to Whitmer for consideration.
“These are such well thought-out plans, I think the administration would be able to certify them relatively rapidly,” Lorenz said.