The recent ‘Eat Out’ scheme was a huge success, possibly more than anyone could have imagined. Over the four weeks or so the it ran it was used over 64 million times, with 84,000 restaurants, cafes and bars signing up to it.

The question asked when it ended was – ‘is it really enough, and will it move onto other businesses?’

Now it seems that Ministers are looking at ways to get us back into theatres, music and sports venues, which have also been badly hit during the crisis.

We spoke to the Department of Culture, Media & Sport today (Monday 7th September) and they confirmed they are looking at a range of options to enable us to get back into our theatres, with the priority very much on our safety.

Any scheme, no matter how it operates, needs to be economically viable. With current social distancing regulations in place, venues can only operate at 25 per cent capacity. But ministers have been told that, for the reopening of venues to be financially viable, this figure would need to be around 70 to 80 per cent.

One of the ideas under consideration seems to be a ‘SEAT OUT TO HELP OUT’ scheme.

Could this be on its way?

A scheme like this, if indeed it ever happened, would be very different to eat out. The size of our venues and the logistics of keeping us safely distanced, would need careful planning to say the least.

One idea we hear being touted is something like ‘tickets for a tenner,’ possibly on a Monday, historically a quieter night for venues. This could also be linked with local restaurants.

At the moments these ideas are nothing more than rumblings, however, we do know that Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has told Whitehall official to “move at extreme pace” to bring the industry back to life.

Mr Dowden has already said that mass indoor events are now on his radar and, along with the Prime Minister, they are actively looking at ways to get us back into our venues – safely.

The Government announced a batch of sporting events to pilot the safe return of spectators, after the Prime Minister confirmed it was safe for the trials to resume from 15th of August.

These included the finals of the World Snooker Championships at the Crucible, Sheffield, on 15th -16th August, and continued with a Brighton & Hove Albion pre-season friendly.

The events were selected to test a range of different event styles across the country’s major men’s and women’s spectator sports. A number of successful pilots have already been completed as part of the programme’s initial phase including snooker at the Crucible and cricket at Edgbaston and the Oval.

Any ‘pilot’ will only take place if the latest scientific and medical advice allows for them to proceed in a Covid-secure way, and will be paused again if the advice suggests that conditions in the local area are not met.

Mr Dowden said…….

“I know fans and their teams can’t wait to be reunited in stadia across the country but it’s imperative we take a cautious and phased approach to get fans back in safely.”

“I’m pleased that infection rates have levelled off enough to resume the pilot programme and we will continue to work intensively with sports, medical and health and safety experts towards welcoming more fans back.”

According to the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown restrictions, November 1st is the first day social distancing measures could be lifted. 

If these plans are pushed through, along with Coronavirus testing on-the-day, it would mean theatres and sports stadiums could reopen within weeks without social distancing measures. At the moment however, it’s all ‘if’s but’s and maybe’s.’

Strict measures include:

  • Upholding social distancing in queues;
  • Minimising the risk of any pinch points or crowding;
  • Carefully controlling bookings so that social distancing is observed in seating arrangements;
  • Minimising the numbers of tickets sold to a pre-defined safe capacity, in accordance with regulator guidance;
  • Recording people’s data to assist NHS Test and Trace.

To help this process along, Health Secretary Matt Hancock is planning a massive increases in the number of Covid-19 tests carried out, in what has been named ‘Operation Moonshot’. 

An increase in testing is hoped to get the economy back on track as Mr Hancock was said to be preparing an ambition to test four million people a day. 

Football

12th September, Dagenham: West Ham v Arsenal (women’s Super League fixture)

27th September, Wembley: Non-League Finals day (FA Vase and FA Trophy), teams TBC

Horse Racing

9th September, Doncaster: St Leger

21st September, Warwick: Warwick

24th September, Cambridgeshire: Newmarket

Cricket

Early September, venues TBC: Bob Willis Trophy Games (4 Day) / T20 Blast Group Fixtures

Basketball

18th September, Eagles Community Arena, Newcastle: Pre-season BBL exhibition match

Speedway

26th September, Foxhall Stadium, Ipswich: British final

The pilots will be carefully monitored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Sports Ground Safety Authority to inform future decisions on further relaxations of the rules.

Capacity limits and ticketing processes will vary based on individual venues and events, with further pilots to be announced in due course.

The London Palladium hosted a spectacular live performance by Beverley Knight as part of the Government‘s official pilot programme back in July. It was the first live, large-scale performance since lockdown began and was conducted with a socially distant audience.

While it was a test, and things have changed since then, it’s worth taking a look at the photographs from Andy Paradise to see if you would enjoy theatre in this way.

Perhaps a ‘Seat Out’ scheme would help make up any shortfall, but is it more about confidence in safety measures which is our main concern?

As we previously reported, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who owns eight West End theatres, and is one of our most prolific producers with shows such as Hamilton, Phantom and Les Miserables, has been forced to make around 200 staff redundant.  

While Boris Johnson has pledged £1.57 billion to keep the arts sector alive, Sir Cameron, and his long-time professional partner, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, have said more needs to be done for the industry.

It was very much ‘grass roots’ music venues across England who were the first recipients from this fund.

  • £2.25m funding topped up by more than £1 million to help more venues in need of support to survive
  • Recipients of the fund include The Troubadour in London, where Adele and Ed Sheeran performed in the early days of their career, as well as The Jacaranda in Liverpool, where The Beatles played early rehearsals and one of their first gigs
  • Arts, film and culture organisations encouraged to get their bids in for a share of £880 million worth of grants through Arts Council England, the British Film Institute, Historic England and the National Lottery Heritage Fun

Of course, everything we are saying is based on the UK Government plans, and things could possibly be different in Wales. We do know however, that events like these are very much a UK-wide issue. Shows tour around the country, sport moves and venues everywhere need to adapt and be supported by any help out schemes.

As with Eat Out, we all need a chance to use the incentives and get our bums back on seats. We have missed our venues and they have missed us.

The Welsh Government’s have published the ‘Unlocking our Society and Economy’ roadmap, which outlines a phased return to life as we know it. From a sporting perspective, the roadmap indicates that enabling our professional and elite sportspeople to resume some form of training activity could happen in the early ‘red’ phase of the roadmap, with team sports and larger gatherings taking place later in the ‘green’ phase. If you’d like to download and read the map, go here. ROADMAP

The creative industries has been one of the fastest growing parts of the Welsh economy for a number of years. The sector doesn’t just create jobs and wealth – it contributes to a strong national brand and helps to promote Wales and its culture and talent to the world. A creative society in its widest sense promotes well-being and a more inclusive society. To read the Welsh Government guidance, go here. CREATIVE

Finally, we wonder how socially-distanced theatre will work. We ran a story recently about a concert at the State Theatre of Hesse in Wiesbaden, which normally seats 1,000, but had fewer than 200 audience members, due to social distancing rules.

The New York Times ran the story with pictures from Gordon Welters, and as nice as it was to see doors open on theatres once again, you can’t help but think how soul-destrying it must be for both the performers and audience to be in such an environment.

It goes without saying that our theatres here simply couldn’t survive with audiences of this size. Can you imagine sitting in the Wales Millennium Centre watching a show with only a handful of people watching? It’s not only about the atmosphere but, if we’re being brutally honest, they would never make any money. No money means no shows. No shows perhaps means more nights in with a new kind of enforced social distancing.

During intermission in Germany, wine, pretzels and other refreshments were served outdoors from a food cart near the colonnaded theatre entrance, instead of in a foyer, like normal. Luckily the weather on Monday was clear and warm.

Wolfgang Allin, an Austrian architect who has a home in Wiesbaden said……

“It’s not the atmosphere we’re used to. But you have to take it as it comes.”

The reality is, a venue like the WMC or St David’s hall, with their wide seats and spacious aisles could possibly handle any social distancing measures, for a short while. Most theatres however, are old (and beautiful) but really not built for any kind of distance measures. The seats are more cramped, we can almost be sat on someones lap in some of venues. Then there are the foyers and bars. It would be nigh on impossible to socially distance more than a few people at a time.

I don’t think I’ve ever been to a theatre when I haven’t had to brush past someone or say the obligatory ‘sorry’ as you go past them. Then there’s the logistics that would have to go in to arranging ticket holders in order. Lining up outside the theatre on possibly a cold, wet night.

Now, these are just the ramblings of a massive theatre fan who, like so many others is missing the enjoyment a show brings. One part of me is saying this has to happen at any cost, something is better than nothing. But with two of the biggest names in theatre production saying social distancing measures wouldn’t easily work, I tend to agree with them, especially after seeing the pictures from Germany.

Then there’s the performers. How did they feel about this unique performance? Although Mr. Groissböck understood the social-distancing rationale for the empty seats, it still felt strange. He said in an interview following his performance of works by Schubert and Mahler.

“At the beginning it felt almost like an art installation, an experiment. But from song to song, it very quickly became something very human.”

Mr. Groissböck and the pianist Alexandra Goloubitskaia performed songs by Schubert and Mahler.
Gordon Welters for The New York Times

So just how long will it be before we get back to some sort of normality? I guess as long as it takes, but you can’t help but think for our theatres, and other venues, this may well be longer than we’d like.

We will let you know more about the ‘SEAT OUT TO HELP OUT’ scheme as soon as we hear more.

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