When Can We Get Back to ‘Normal’?

Perhaps no one is more eager to see the end to COVID restrictions than Alec Doyle (pictured), executive director of the Colonial Performing Art Center in Keene. A new venue, called the showroom, is ready to roll. Next pages: the exterior and interior of the new space.

With warm weather on the horizon, businesses that host weddings, conferences and other large gatherings are eagerly awaiting the anticipated end of COVID-19 restrictions.

Those were the expectations last year in early spring, and much to the surprise, and regret, of everyone, that same sense of hope remains as the pandemic stubbornly continues to impact the professional and personal lives of almost everyone.

At this time, no one, not even the health experts, can predict when it will be safe to end restrictions that limit capacity at indoor and outdoor events with social distancing and masks required. And when those restrictions are no longer in place, the public’s comfort level to be in close proximity to others will also be a factor on when large gatherings will again be considered normal.

Hallie Flower, the executive director of the New England Youth Theatre, says a decision to schedule performances indoors will depend a lot on when audiences will again begin to feel comfortable about being in a crowd.

In light of the COVID spike through late last year and into 2021, there is caution about whether the recent decline in COVID cases signals an end or is just a lull before another surge. Many organizations are making contingency plans for their big events to guard against the possibility of COVID restrictions remaining.

“We are waiting to see what happens,” says Mary Ann Kristiansen, executive director of the Hannah Grimes Center in Keene, when asked about how the center is preparing for the post-COVID world.

The center hosts the annual Radically Rural symposium, and this year’s event is scheduled for late September. Kristiansen says they fully expect to hold an in-person event but have in place for a virtual one as well. Even if there are no restrictions on gatherings, some may still want to attend virtually, she adds.

“Our plan is to have it in-person, but we will add a virtual component,” Kristiansen says. “Obviously, things can change, and we are hoping for in-person. But you never know.”

Kristiansen calls the two-day event, Sept. 22-23, “experienced-based,” bringing together members of small communities for solutions on a range of issues.

“It gets people together to have coffee, share ideas. We want to get back to that,” she says.

Business gatherings, weddings, postponed

Shane Long, CEO and owner of the Aldworth Manor in Harrisville, New Hampshire, would also like to get back to holding large weddings and not have to worry about how many are allowed to gather inside or how far apart they are.

When COVID struck last March, the Manor moved about 10 to 12 weddings to this year, Long says,

“We took a big hit,” he says, adding that events such as baby showers and monthly music and art shows were all eliminated. When COVID cases spiked earlier this year, Long says they closed the restaurant because with the six-foot (table) spacing requirement and people not feeling comfortable with indoor dining, it was not worth the expense.

They held several smaller weddings last year of 40 or fewer and had to institute state guidelines for social distancing and masks. For the weddings scheduled later this year, Long says couples are prepared for masks if necessary, and the receptions will be a combination indoor/outdoor event to not violate any restrictions if they are still in place.

Based on the bookings for rooms at the Marriott Hotel in Keene, it would seem couples are confident COVID will be behind us come wedding season.

“We have four to six wedding (parties) on the books (for rooms) from May to October,” says Heidi Hale, director of sales at the Marriott. The weddings, Hale says, are all taking place within a 20 to 30 miles radius of the hotel.

For its 2,200 square foot conference room, Hale says they are seeing some small-scale meetings for groups that need reliable Wi-Fi, and there is enough space to social distance for these gatherings.

“As of now, we are not seeing large-scale events yet, though I think people are beginning to feel a little more comfortable getting out,” Hale says. “Hopefully, the vaccine will give everyone peace of mind.”

Like many venues that regularly host weddings, parties and conferences, the Wantastiquet Hall and Catering in Brattleboro has been mostly closed the past year, says Justin Thompson, chef/event planner.

Vermont (as of press time) prohibits indoor gatherings of no more than 75, depending on the venue’s capacity. Outdoors the limit is 150, though those numbers may be less depending on the size of the venue.

Thompson says they managed to hold a few functions last fall but keeping all family members at one table, maintaining proper distance between tables, requiring mask-wearing when anyone left a table and keeping track of everyone for contract tracing created a lot of work.

“It gets quite complicated,” he says.

Is change coming with the vaccine?

Thompson says they, like everyone else, are hopeful change is coming as more and more people receive the vaccines.

“We are booking into the future and have two weddings for the fall,” he says, adding that they have warned the parties there may still be COVID restrictions in place. “They were OK with that.”

Robin Johnson, owner of The Stone Church in Brattleboro, an entertainment venue that holds about 100, is less optimistic about when the COVID restrictions will be lifted, and when he will be allowed to hold indoor events, including live music.

“I just started booking for the fall,” Johnson says. “Our primary thing is live music. Right now, I don’t feel confident that the reality (of no COVID) won’t be until the fall. Some are rushing for the spring and summer, but I am wary of that.”

Online and Zoom became successful alternatives to in-person events for the Brattleboro Museum and Arts Center for their artists’ talks, workshops and more.

Gallery Manager Erin Jenkins says continuing the program on a different platform did have the advantage of allowing people to view it on their own time.

Jenkins says they expect to resume in-person events outside when the weather is nicer, and that will allow for more people while not violating any restrictions.

Perhaps no one is more eager to see the end to COVID restrictions than Alec Doyle, executive director of the Colonial Performing Art Center in Keene. The center’s 900-seat main stage is closed for an 11-month renovation that should begin soon, but a new venue, called the Showroom, just behind the theatre in a renovated building, is ready for shows and audiences.

The Showroom can seat 150 but with retractable seating capacity increases to 300 for standing room. The venue is described as being tailored for “emerging artists, local performers and educational programming.”

“It is for performances that would not be viable in the 900-seat theatre,” Doyle says.

The hope is for programming to begin this summer.

“It is ready, but the virus isn’t,” Doyle says. “Right now, we are champing at the bit to get going. It is an amazing space with nothing like it in the area.”

Doyle says, like every other arts and entertainment venue, they are in “no man’s land” with respect to being able to book performances and sell tickets.

“It is hard to plan with any certainty,” he says. “Right now, my best guess, if we are really lucky, we will be open by the middle of summer. But I am not sure what that will look like.”

The New England Youth Theatre in Brattleboro saw its programs come to an abrupt halt when the COVID pandemic hit nationwide. The theatre’s executive director, Hallie Flower, says they had to stop a two-week run of the play The Hundred Dresses, performed by 9 to 12 years old and stop rehearsals for two other plays for older students.

“When it became clear we were not going to have an audience, we stopped rehearsals,” Flower says about the planned performance of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibilities. “It would not work with Zoom.”

Flower says they are blessed with a “large outdoor campus,” which allowed them to continue with some performances but instead of engaging about 500 families each year, they only had about 100 in 2020. The first live outdoor performance is scheduled for June. 

They employed some remote programs using Zoom, in-person and a hybrid of the two. Use of indoor spaces was limited to about 90 minutes and required them to be disinfected after each use, according to the theatre’s health guidelines.

“Right now, we are planning our summer programs with a certain amount of flexibility,” Flower says.

Long, the Aldworth Manor owner sums up how many feel about the past 12 months and the next 12.

“It’s been a crazy year, but we have hung in there,” Long says. “I’m hoping with more vaccines and warm weather, things will get back to normal. Right now, though, the comfort level is not there.” T

This article is being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative.

For more information, visit www.collaborativenh.org.