Many Mainers were pleasantly surprised last week to hear Gov. Janet Mills announce that, effective May 24, the majority of Maine’s pandemic restrictions will be lifted. In particular, the news that capacity restrictions on both indoor and outdoor gatherings were lifted came as a surprise, as did news from the federal government that people who are vaccinated don’t have to wear masks anymore.
Few were as surprised as the people who operate venues around the state for live music, theater and comedy and for other types of events and gatherings. Joshua Gass, managing director for the Bangor Arts Exchange, thought it might happen sometime in the summer — but not as early as May 24.
Regardless of the new capacity guidelines, Gass doesn’t plan to immediately open his doors to full capacity shows. Gass already had a few concerts booked for his venue for June, but he plans to keep those shows at the prior capacity limits.
“At BAE, we are going to keep our early June shows at a more limited capacity while we plan for a return to full capacity shows by July,” Gass said. “We’ve already seen an uptick in ticket sales, artist inquiries for performance and for private rentals.”
For those venues that had already planned outdoor events or lower capacity shows, many have already made the decision to keep those limits in place, and continue with outdoor shows. For Nick Turner, executive director of the Grand Theatre in Ellsworth, the biggest issue with trying to return to indoor shows right away is the fact that there’s no realistic way to check if people are indeed vaccinated — or to enforce a mask requirement if they aren’t.
To that end, the Grand plans to offer a slate of outdoor programming at the nearby Woodlawn Museum this summer — where artists and audience members alike don’t need to be masked.
“If we couldn’t get everybody to wear a mask before the vaccine, how are we realistically going to make sure every person is vaccinated now?” Turner said. “At the Grand, we are going to follow Broadway’s lead, and not try to return to indoor, unmasked shows until September.”
While smaller venues have more wiggle room in terms of being able to relatively quickly book shows or to pivot toward alternate outdoor programming, for larger venues, there will likely be much more lag time in terms of when they can get up and running.
In Portland, Lauren Wayne, who books shows for both the State Theatre and the outdoor venue Thompson’s Point, has in the past five days added several new shows for the late summer and fall, including 311 on Aug. 26 and the Ghostland Festival on Sept. 4, both at Thompson’s Point, and Dashboard Confessional on Sept. 30 and Bianca Del Rio on Oct. 25, both at the State Theatre.
For Waterfront Concerts, operators of the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion in Bangor, the state’s largest venue, and the Maine Savings Pavilion in Westbrook, the second-largest, the bands that come through both cities are almost always on a massive tour that has to be routed through multiple states in order for it to make both logistical and financial sense.
With there still being a patchwork of restrictions and levels of vaccination all across the country, those big shows that can draw thousands of people are still a few months off from happening, until all or most states are on roughly the same page in terms of reopening.
“We’re totally dependent on what happens in the rest of the Northeast,” said Alex Gray, president of Waterfront Concerts. “We’re still waiting to see when New Jersey and Pennsylvania will announce how they plan to reopen. Once that happens, I think we’ll be in a better position to start routing tours again.”
As for whether or not music lovers will see some new shows announced for either Bangor or Westbrook, Gray is still in a wait-and-see pattern. There are still three holdover shows from 2020 set for the Darling’s Waterfront Pavilion (Luke Bryan on Aug. 5, KISS on Aug. 19 and Thomas Rhett on Aug. 20), and there are four shows set for the the Maine Savings Pavilion, including the recently announced Brothers Osbourne concert on July 31.
“We’re working very hard to squeeze in some shows for the end of the summer,” Gray said. “Every promoter in North America is trying to pull something together. We’re just waiting to see what happens in the rest of the country before we can really say yes or no.”