Sunday afternoon, Josh Formont — entertainment director for The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint out on West Lamar Alexander Parkway in Maryville — was keeping an eye on coronavirus headlines and making plans for a week of vacation.
The Shed’s 2020 concert season kicks off the first week of April, and while the global pandemic was certainly cause for concern, Formont and Scott Maddux — owner of Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson, the dealership that oversees The Shed and its weekly live shows — felt fairly confident that the shows, as they say, would go on. A notice to patrons on the venue’s website stressed the austerity measures Shed staff would undertake to keep the place sanitized, but there also was cause for cautious optimism:
“The great thing about The Shed is that it is an outdoor concert venue, so the open air environment should help mitigate any unwanted person-to-person contact,” the statement read. “With that said, we ask that all concert attendees be sure to give everyone plenty of space, The Shed is a huge spot with a ton of room for everyone, respect each other and enjoy the show!”
And then the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a Sunday evening statement recommending event organizers cancel or postpone gatherings of more than 50 people for the next eight weeks. Within 24 hours, Formont’s vacation plans were put on hold as that optimism gave way to a grim reality: The Shed will stay dark until the first of May.
“Scott and I were immediately in communication when the new CDC recommendations came out, texting back and forth, and we decided that in the interest of all of our fans and all the fans of the bands, as well as our crew and our staff, that we were going to take those recommendations and delay the start of our season to May 2 — and just hope there are no further delays after that,” Formont said. “The rest of our free ‘Funky Monkey’ Friday shows will be canceled, and our Thursday night blues jams will be postponed until May. We’re pretty much going to be dead in the water until May, and it hurts, because we’ve got a lot of people who depend on the concert season to really carry them through the rest of the year. Our production crew, our bartenders, our security personnel — all of them are going to be affected by this.”
Across Blount County, bar owners and venue proprietors are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst — but given the uncertainties associated with COVID-19, no one is quite sure what that looks like. As of this writing, the governors of several states across the country — Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and Michigan — have called for the closure of restaurants and bars, or restricted them to providing takeout orders only. In Nashville, Mayor John Cooper ordered the closure of bars along the famous Lower Broadway district. In Knoxville, city and county leaders called on restaurants to limit capacity, and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon declared a state of emergency, urging restaurants and businesses to limit service to carryout orders.
Whether Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee will call for similar measures statewide remains to be seen, but even if he doesn’t, Blount County entertainment venues are already feeling the virus’ effects.
“It’s spring break right now, so we knew there would be a little bit of a slowdown, but we did not anticipate anything like this,” said Rocko Reynolds, the booking manager for Bluetick Tavern on West Broadway in downtown Maryville. “There’s usually an hour wait on Friday nights, and even during a slower time spring break, you might have to wait 10 minutes to get seated, but right now, it’s not even filling up. We have open tables all the time, and we have people calling and asking how we’re handling the virus.”
Bluetick — like Brackins Blues Club, Two Doors Down and The Shed, all of which serve food in addition to hosting live music — adheres to health department standards regardless, but Reynolds and the Bluetick staff do their best to reassure potential patrons that they’re taking extra precautions.
“We’re wiping down handrails, computer screens, everything,” she said. “We’ve always been virus-ready, because you kind of have to be in the service industry.”
All the sterility efforts still haven’t been enough to convince live music lovers to get out, however: Last Friday, Reynolds added, performer Kristofer Lee Bentley drew two attendees, “one of which was from the production company that helped book the show,” Reynolds said.
“I believe we had more of a crowd the next night, but still nothing close to what we’re used to,” she said. “(This) weekend, New Hope Children’s Advocacy Center canceled their fundraiser, along with all of their events for the next month, but we’re still planning on having The Young Fables play. We’ll probably still charge a cover and donate it to New Hope, because it’s obviously a good cause.”
As of Wednesday, The Young Fables performance was still a go — from 6-8 p.m. Friday night’s “Metal Mayhem” show, however, has been postponed for now, and the venue/restaurant itself is operating on reduced hours — 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. The weekly trivia night at Bluetick also has been temporarily suspended for the next two weeks, Reynolds added.
At Two Doors Down, last weekend’s crowds were respectable for the bands Rebel Mountain on Friday and the Slaten Dooley Band, according to Philip Sharp, the bar’s general manager. He and his team, including boss and owner Lisa Breazeale, have stocked up on cleaning supplies and regularly given the building a good scrubbing, because keeping the doors open is, he sees it, an act of defiance toward a disease that’s infected almost 170,000 people worldwide and killed almost 7,000 in more than 150 countries as of earlier this week.
“We’re concerned about our patrons and our staff, but we also can’t shut our doors and be scared, because people don’t want to stay home and be scared,” he said. “We want anyone who’s sick to stay home, but we think of ourselves as a hometown, neighborhood bar, and we’re staying open for the same reasons we’re open on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day — people need a place to go. So until further notice, it’s business as usual.”
As it is, added Manager Christina Nore O’Rourke, at Brackins: “We’re going to take extra precautions, even though we pride ourselves on being a pretty clean bar anyway — like wiping down all of the doors and door knobs and caddies and menus and even the pool cues. But we’re a small business, so we’re still going to be here and doing what we can until they tell us we can’t.”
Those locally owned businesses are feeling the greatest pinch. Lisa Misosky, owner of The Bird and the Book on East Broadway Avenue in Maryville, originally planned to maintain weekend events at her restaurant, mostly because the capacity is low enough that it stays below the threshold of recommended by the CDC (President Trump on Monday urged Americans to avoid crowds of 10 or more.) But by Wednesday morning, plans had changed, and for this weekend, at least, The Bird and the Book will be closed.
What the future holds remains to be seen, she added, but she can’t afford to shut down for long.
Over on the Maryville College campus, the Clayton Center for the Arts finds itself in a somewhat better position. Going into spring break week, events at the facility were minimal, according to General Manager Blake Smith, but the few cancellations they’ve had to make were certainly painful. “Shrek: The Musical,” a presentation of the Maryville College Theatre Department on the Clayton Center main stage, was shut down because of COVID-19 concerns, but for right now, all other events are still under consideration, Smith said.
“Our last season show on the books is Choir of Man (scheduled for April 3), and we’re currently in discussions with them about what the future looks like right now as things continue to develop,” Smith said. “There are a few events on the calendar for the next eight weeks, but we’re in conversations with every one of those groups to see where they are and whether there’s any thought of cancellation, especially those falling much further away. The college is looking at its events — recitals and other programs that are part of our regular business — and right now, we’re following the recommended parameters from the CDC.
“Until such time that we’re potentially under mandate, we’re going to use our best decision-making to guide us. Right now, the whole process is unraveling on a continuous basis, which presents challenges for us because the answers I give you today may not be the answers I would give you on Friday. What it means in the bigger picture, obviously, is that we don’t have the opportunity to continue with our mission to be a gathering place for the community, and we take that very seriously. We want to be a great place for people to come to enjoy the arts and other opportunities for entertainment.”
It is, he added, a test of the Clayton Center’s contingency planning the likes of which he’s rarely experienced in his career. While part of the process is planning for unexpected events and circumstances, neither Smith nor his Blount County counterparts foresaw the arrival of COVID-19.
“It’s just not something you think about,” Formont said. “We plan for the weather being bad, or what to do if ticket sales are low, or what we do if we sell out way in advance. We make all these strategies and plans for every scenario we can think of — but the plague coming to the United States is not something we’ve thought of. That was never discussed in a marketing meeting, because I don’t think it’s something any of us could have imagined in our wildest dreams.”