Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Venues plan for long haul with cautious reopenings

Arts United, Coliseum, Embassy prepare


Michele DeVinney

Whatzup Features Writer

Published June 4, 2020

Entertainment venues have been quiet since Gov. Holcomb implemented large-scale closings in March. But minus any glitches between now and then, they will begin to see some action in July.

But with tremendous uncertainty about what form that reopening will take, local venues plan to get creative.

Downtown Venues looking up

“We’re reopening with our arts and culture partners and many arts organizations,” said Susan Mendenhall, president of Arts United of Greater Fort Wayne. “Things are going to look very different. We’re operating on guidelines from the CDC, the Allen County Department of Health in concert with local government, and in ways that audience members and patrons will demand. We want our arts and culture programs to be in environments that are as safe as possible and do so with practices that are as safe as possible.”

For the benefit of the audiences, the staff, and the volunteers, some creative measures have affected the way staff spend their workday.

“For anyone who has attended events at the Embassy, particularly Festival of Trees, knows, there are very narrow passageways here,” said Carly Myers, chief marketing officer for the Embassy Theatre. “The elevators are very small, and we have to figure out how to work around those aspects of a historic building. Even our staff offices are snug, so we’re all working from different corners of the building right now to maintain social distancing.”

One of the Embassy’s signature events, Summer Nights, is scheduled to begin on June 3. The theater’s staff is busy determining the best health practices to adopt based on recommendations from not only the CDC and Allen County Board of Health but also Parkview Health.

“The first two [events] will take place virtually,” Myers said. “We’ll see then how Summer Nights will look after that. We have to determine capacity that allows for distancing. I was saying that to someone who asked why it was any different than restaurants that open at 50 percent capacity.

“But it is very different. When you go to a restaurant, you sit with the people with you and stay in that seat for maybe 40 minutes. We have to allow for people being there for a couple of hours and moving around and using the restrooms. And that provides other challenges for us.”

Coliseum’s new normal

Also dealing with the “new normal” is Randy Brown, vice president and general manager of the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum for more than 30 years. When 2020 dawned five months ago, this year looked much different to him.

“In February we had the KISS concert, the Home and Garden Show, and Disney on Ice,” Brown said. “All of our shows were either soldout or already at break even levels, and then by March 15, it was all shut down. It went from looking like our biggest year ever to being our worst, by far.”

Social distancing requirements leave many summer and fall events out of reach for the venue which will see its maximum capacity drop from 12,500 to about 2,000.

“That eliminates concerts because there’s no way we could make the money back,” Brown said, “and it also counts out hockey and possibly basketball too. All of the venues around the country are looking at this, and it’s an issue for the NFL, NHL, and NBA, but the difference for those leagues is that they have TV money. If they have to make allowances for distancing, they still have this other large source of revenue.”

In the coming weeks, the Coliseum will host some commencement ceremonies as well as wedding receptions. New allowances will mean limited seating and scrupulous cleaning and disinfecting between events. Brown notes that even seemingly small issues like self-serve buffets and condiment containers are a no-go for now.

Safety first

Brown works diligently with other venues in the city and around the country as various challenges have to be met. COVID-19 has provided new questions and answers in the wake of the shutdown.

Mendenhall cited a webinar for those in various aspects of the economy, “Roadmap to a Healthy Reopen,” sponsored by Greater Fort Wayne and Parkview Health, which shared information that will help venues navigate the many challenges that lie ahead.

“Just because the economy is reopening doesn’t mean everything will be back to normal,” Mendenhall said. “We’re preparing for distancing, smaller gatherings, keeping six feet between family units.

“We’re conforming to the guidelines, so while arts and culture events are designed to bring people together, we’re looking at virtual and online ways to adhere to the guidelines we’ve been given.”

While everyone hopes that the “new normal” fades away to the old normal, venue managers and arts organizations continue to prepare to provide entertainment for northeast Indiana in an age of uncertainty.

“We believe what we’re hearing from Dr. Fauci, the CDC, and the health department,” Mendenhall said. “This will not just be over the summer, but long term. It’ll be up to the arts and culture leaders to plan for the health and safety of those involved in these events.”

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