State clears performance spaces for reopening, but Brooklyn venue owners remain wary

Brooklyn Steel is one of the borough’s many venues holding out for a full-capacity reopening.
File photo by Stefano Giovannini

After a year of closure, Gov. Andrew Cuomo on March 3 released guidelines allowing indoor venues to host reduced-capacity performances — but don’t expect to pack into a concert hall anytime soon. 

Under New York State guidelines, entertainment venues across the Five Boroughs can reopen at 33 percent capacity on April 2, with a maximum of 100 attendees, or 150 guests if the venue can administer rapid coronavirus tests. Still, many Brooklyn venues — shuttered since the coronavirus outbreak in March, 2020 — say they have no plans to reopen until they can safely host full-capacity shows.

“I don’t feel that it makes sense,” said Oren Bloedow, owner of the Owl Music Parlor in Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. “You need to relax when you’re having this kind of experience, and being masked up and trying to maintain social distance — that’s not relaxing.”

The layout of the pint-sized Owl Music Parlor, which Bloedow likens to a storefront church, would make the possibility of a COVID-friendly concert nearly impossible before herd immunity is reached.

“At one end you’ve got people singing, and at the other end you’ve got people drinking and talking,” he said. “There’s no room, you can’t get away from people.”

Though, not all hope is lost. Other venue owners say they’re considering reopening with reduced capacity come May, when vaccines are expected to be more widely available. But even then, they said, the restrictions would make breaking even nearly impossible for smaller operators.   

“The economics of small music venues is such that it’s hard to break even in the best of times,” said Andrew Muchmore, owner of Muchmore’s in Williamsburg. “Trying to do so at 33 percent capacity is not especially viable.”

The Havemeyer Street venue is blessed with a corner storefront, giving the venue ample space for outdoor food and drink service — something Muchmore predicts could help subsidize the performance space while restrictions on capacity remain. 

“Under our old model it would not make sense to reopen with 33 percent, but if we start relying more on the outdoor seating and food and drinks, I think it could work,” he said.

The venue owner said he’s also considering a pivot to more stand-up comedy acts, both as a way to allow for more social distancing through tables and chairs, and to keep up with the changing demographics of Williamsburg.

“Neither venues or bars and restaurants are going to be able to 100 percent police social distancing, and make sure that no one ever comes within six feet of anyone else,” Muchmore said. “If we at least have tables set up and those are reasonably spaced apart, that will help ensure adequate social distancing.”

Two of Brooklyn’s biggest venues, Music Hall of Williamsburg and Brooklyn Steel, will also remain shuttered until 100 percent capacity is permitted, Dennis Deheny, a spokesperson for the operating entertainment company told Gothamist.

In the meantime, Bloedow said he looks forward to the day he can finally welcome musicians back into his Rogers Avenue space.

“I’m holding the space for our community of listeners and musicians,” he said, “and as soon as we can get fully vaccinated events going here, we’ll try to reopen as soon after that as we can.”