No Clear Vision For Dublin's Music Scene to Step Out of Covid-19 Restrictions, Some Say

At Whelan’s, staff and managers had been prepping to make the venue safe.

They’d put in hand-sanitiser dispensers, brought in tables for seated-only gigs, and even varnished the exposed wood interior so it’s easy to clean.

Folk singer Lisa Hannigan was booked for two 88-seater concerts.

“We had a fair few gigs that we were hoping [would] happen on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. They sold quite well,” says Dave Allen, bookings manager for the Camden Street venue.

Then, the daily case numbers of Covid-19 began to tick upwards. The government said that Phase 4 of the plan to lift restrictions would not yet go ahead.

Allen and his colleagues backtracked, deferring some events until September, and rebooking others for 2021.

As the ground keeps shifting, those who run live events in the city are having to scramble and change. Some say that a lack of clarity around the government’s rules is preventing those who can reopen safely from doing so.

A Lack of Clarity

On 18 August, the Department of the Taoiseach announced new Covid-19 measures that set out, in particular, how many people can gather indoors and outdoors for different kinds of events.

Six people can meet indoors, rather than 50 as it had been previously. Except for “museums, cinemas, theatres and art galleries”, which can host 50 people indoors at one time.

Meanwhile, 15 people can meet outdoors, rather than 200 as it had been. The measures are set to be reviewed on 13 September.

Allen says he doesn’t know where the new restrictions leave venue operators in the music business like them. “It’s all very frustrating for us.”

In some ways, the rules don’t make much sense, he said. “It doesn’t seem to take anything into account like the square footage of the venue. It should be a percentage of your capacity.”

When the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht elaborated on the restrictions on 27 August, music venues weren’t explicitly mentioned.

That reinforced a feeling among many that live events were an afterthought.

Vinny Casey, venue manager at The Workman’s Club, said that it’s like the government doesn’t see music venues as something they have to deal with. “It’s really heartbreaking.”

Under the new guidelines, Casey has put on small seated acoustic sets in the theatre in the downstairs of The Workman’s, selling between 40 and 45 tickets per event.

It’s not especially profitable but Casey was eager to get his artists back on stage to perform to a small audience, he says.

Above all, he says, he wishes that there were more explicit instructions which people working in live events could follow so that they may get back to work while still keeping attendees and artists alike safe.

He says: “We want to follow the health advice. What we really need is clarity on what the health officials want us to do.”

Health officials can trust that they’ll do it, he says. “This is what we do, we organise things. If anyone can organise something safe, it’s the events industry.”

An Evolving Situation

The National Campaign for the Arts (NCFA), a volunteer-led organisation, has been trying to bridge what it sees as chasms of understanding between those in the arts and those who are determining new Covid-19 measures.

After the recent guidelines were released, the campaign issued a response questioning why museums and theatres were dubbed “controlled environments” while venues were not.

The new rules for outdoor events, with a cap of 15 people, were “unrealistic” and would mean cancelling events planned by “hundreds” of arts organisations around the country at great expense, its statement said.

“This is a national health issue, we’re not ever going to argue with that,” says Angela Dorgan, chair of the NCFA and director of Ireland Music Week.

But there was a lack of transparency around how the decision around capacity was reached, she says. “If lack of knowledge about the sector was part of their decision-making process, we want to take that out of the scenario.”

More comprehensive guidelines for those in the arts would mean more professionals could return to work without compromising public safety, she said.

Dorgan says she appreciates that guidelines have to evolve as the health situation does. Even if it means those in live events are the last to get back to work.

She’s concerned that supports such as the Pandemic Unemployment Payment, vital up to now to support people in the industry, are being gradually phased out, with a drop in the amount people get.

If live events have to stay closed, those supports should stay, she says.

The Department of Culture hasn’t yet not responded to requests for comment, nor could it provide a spokesperson for an interview.

Banding Together

Ireland owes its arts support in times of crisis considering how much culture has boosted the country’s national profile, says Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield, who has served on the Culture and Education Panel since 2016.

But artists’ work is being ignored, he says. “Government has always assumed that the work will go on when the government supports are turned off.”

More longer-term financial measures, such as the “living wage initiative” proposed by Sinn Féin, are needed, he says. That idea is for councils to hire hundreds of artists and pay them the living wage of €12.30 an hour.

Some say there aren’t any votes in the arts and that’s why there’s a lack of political attention but he doesn’t accept that, says Warfield.

“I think people understand that what’s on their phones, what’s playing through their headphones and what’s on their TVs are created by people in the creative sectors,” he says.

Existing support for live-events professionals need to be extended, says Tony Killeen, a representative of the EPIC working group, which has brought together those in the live events sector affected by Covid-19.

They’re worried that they will be the last bunch to return to regular work, says Killeen who is also site manager and director of productions at St Patrick’s Festival.

He’s concerned they’ll be forgotten, he says. “And we’ll lose some of the support that is keeping people alive at the moment.”

Individual contractors are being kept afloat by the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and various bill deferments such as mortgage and rent stays.“The bills are just mounting though,” Killeen says.

Similarly, events companies have been temporarily kept afloat by stays on payments negotiated with banks.

Killeen’s fear, however, is that these firms will be crushed under the weight of arrears when payments fall due again – which is currently set to happen in October.

The COVID-19 Business Loans available through Microfinance Ireland allow for borrowing of up to €25,000 but Killeen says that won’t stretch far. “We need bigger grants than are currently available.”

Loans guaranteed by the government are insufficient as the future is too uncertain for borrowers to know how much they need to keep going, Killeen says.

The EPIC working group has a wishlist that includes a VAT cut, the Pandemic Unemployment Payment and Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme kept going and business grants for small and medium-size enterprises.

Closer to Home

Sunil Sharpe, spokesperson for volunteer campaign group Give Us The Night (GUTN), says the summer months have been a missed opportunity to trial novel ways to run compliant events.

“We really need to be embracing outdoor events as much as we can, but the opportunities are going to narrow as we head into winter,” says Sharpe.

Current restrictions on movement may reinvigorate people’s interest in their local arts scene, says Sharpe: “We need to think a little more about the weekly gig and the health of local venues.”

Some events are pressing ahead in different forms. Irish rapper Nealo, real name Neal Keating, hasn’t played a gig since mid-March, just before pandemic-related mass closures began.

On 2 September, he is due to take to the stage again, as one of 50 acts at Ireland Music Week, a festival which was, until two years ago, known as “Hard Working Class Heroes”.

For the first time since the festival began in 2003, it is being done entirely online. Performances are set to be pre-recorded with a small crew from video production firm Tiny Ark at Lost Lane in Dublin.

The plan is then to broadcast them in early October, when the festival normally takes place.

It will be strange to perform without an audience to draw energy from, Keating says, but it is hard to be picky in these circumstances. “I think I’ll make the most of it anyway. I’m just happy to be playing a gig.”

Keating says he felt like his career was just on the cusp of taking off when the pandemic indefinitely deferred many of his plans. “It’s really been a big blow to be honest. I haven’t quite gotten around to thinking about the ramifications of it.”

It’s looking as if it’ll be next year before gigs are back, he says. “It’s sad, but like everything in life, you just have to learn to run with it.”

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Eva Short : Eva Short is a freelance journalist based in Dublin.

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