How summer music festivals are reopening in New York City during COVID-19

How summer music festivals are reopening in New York City during COVID-19
BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! stage. Courtesy of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!

New York City’s free outdoor summer series are coming back, but doing so safely is a herculean effort

New Yorkers are slowly emerging from a pandemic and winter-induced hibernation into what might be a hopeful spring. Yet, even as this summer promises a plethora of music in parks and on city sidewalks, the season’s most notable events still remain largely to-be-determined.

Popular outdoor (mostly free) festivals generally pivoted toward virtual programming in 2020 — a year when gathering 1,000 people in close proximity sounded more like a nightmare than a celebrated New York City mainstay. But with restrictions shifting and vaccines rolling out, summer 2021 holds much more promise, and concert presenters like BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, SummerStage and Lincoln Center are planning to host in-person events.

“It’s very hard to try to book a show not knowing what the restrictions are going to be and not knowing how big the crowd is going to be,” said Heather Lubov, executive director of the City Parks Foundation, the non-profit that produces SummerStage. “The season is not going to look like a normal season, of course.”

Although NYC will have world-class musicians on outdoor stages across the city, this summer’s festival series will still look markedly different from pre-pandemic iterations. ALL ARTS spoke with festival organizers about the challenges they face and the new solutions under development as they gear up for a summer of outdoor, COVID-cautious events.

Timeline is all off

In a normal season, most presenters in the city would have solidified performance dates and artist lineups by April, often with announcements coming at the end of the month. By the same point this year, a majority were still getting started and had yet to sign artist contracts.

As a result, the festival season will start later and be shorter. SummerStage, which will still host its annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival at Marcus Garvey Park in August, plans to begin its main festival event in earnest in mid- to late-July, with shows at only two locations (rather than its typical 15-18 venues). Focusing instead on its Restart Stages program in May, Lincoln Center will not hold its Out of Doors or Midsummer Night Swing series this summer. BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! will begin in July.

“I feel like I’m planning three different festivals at once, because there are so many factors,” said BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! Executive Producer Lia Camille Crockett.

BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn! stage. Courtesy of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!

The abbreviated lead time, unprecedented requirements and potential for change require incredible nimbleness.

“No one knows what’s gonna happen; we’re just guessing and trying to remain as flexible as humanly possible,” Lubov said, noting that SummerStage could add additional shows. “It’s probably making our staff completely crazy. And they’re doing a fantastic job.”

Risk mitigation is top of mind

While the state and city have issued guidance for medium-sized event spaces, those with over 1,000-person capacity (such as the Prospect Park Bandshell, the site of Celebrate Brooklyn!) have yet to receive official re-opening guidance. As of writing, in New York state, outdoor events spaces can host up to 500 people when testing is required, and social distancing and mask mandates are upheld, as announced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. New York City currently has its own set of more restrictive guidelines. Though Mayor Bill de Blasio anticipates the city will fully re-open by July 1, how new guidelines will affect festivals remains to be seen.

Some of the biggest challenges rise around inconsistent rule and standard enforcement, said Morgan Deane, head of 508 Events and Lasher Louis Productions, and a leader in the New York Independent Venue Association (NYIVA). Deane compared outdoor music venues to skating in Bryant Park: “If you’re allowed to sort of circulate outside with a mask and self-regulate social distancing with support from the operator … why are we not doing that for venues?”

To comply with existing regulations and those anticipated for large-capacity venues, SummerStage won’t build big, new stages on-site and will, instead, use its mobile stage with some tents. City Parks decided to focus its SummerStage season at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Central Park “because those are the two spaces where you can control the egress and the exiting of crowds comfortably,” Lubov explained. The organization also plans to rent bathroom trailers with running water, instead of port-o-potties, and will have workers disinfect the facilities after every use. In addition to hosting performers at Damrosch Park, Lincoln Center will build a cabaret-style stage at Hearst Plaza.

Photo courtesy of SummerStage.
Photo courtesy of SummerStage.

Social-distancing requirements are top of mind for BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, explained Crockett, who believes six-foot distance will be tough to regulate.

“There’s a conflict, in a way, between a capacity percentage versus being six feet apart,” she said. “If we interpret the rules at their most conservative, it becomes really cost prohibitive and really logistically challenging for any event of our scale.”

Lubov noted that SummerStage will have assigned, social-distanced seating for the first time. BRIC and City Parks’ event organizers plan to implement contact tracing and health screenings; both will require proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of a performance. Performers and crew will be tested regularly.

2021 shows will likely also be shorter. “In Central Park, for a normal concert, we would book three acts, and there’ll be a 15-to-20 minute changeover in between each. We can’t have that now because we’re trying to minimize people moving through the space,” Lubov said, adding that one or two acts will likely perform 90-minute to two-hour sets, without an intermission.

New ways to buy tickets and interact

One of the biggest changes to New York’s free festivals comes in the form of ticketing. Where most outdoor concerts worked on a first-come-first-served basis, reservations will now be required. SummerStage will then assign arrival times to eliminate crowding at the festival entrance and open doors much earlier to allow for staggered arrival.

But if one of the perks of New York’s summer events is that they are free and accessible to all, requiring reservations can be a serious barrier to entry. City Parks plans to implement ticket lotteries to make things more fair.

“I imagine that our shows will be sold out almost immediately, and we also have to be concerned about folks who can’t register online for whatever reason,” Lubov said. “So we’ll have to make sure that we have phone numbers that people can call; that we go into the community and distribute tickets.”

If you are lucky enough to get inside Central Park SummerStage, for example, you’ll likely be quarantined to a specific area. Food and drinks must be ordered online, then delivered to seats to minimize moving around the festival area. Once the show is over, Lubov added, “like an airplane, you’ll exit directed by someone on stage, row by row. Again, all of this is to eliminate any kind of crowding.”

The talent will look different this year

New York City’s music festivals are known for drawing renowned international talent (2019 saw Celso Piña, Liz Phair and Patti LaBelle in Prospect Park, while Sheila E., Lila Downs and George Clinton hit various SummerStages), as well as local acts. Summer series in 2021 will likely be much more localized due to travel restrictions. The focus on New York-area performers could be a boon for local musicians who might not otherwise have the opportunity to play those festival stages.

“Every year, our festival really focuses on genres that are distinctly New York or that reflect New York’s community — that doesn’t change,” Lubov said. “But who we will be able to present will definitely change.”

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For BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, Crockett noted that interest from artists varies.

“Many artists, obviously, have not been able to work for a very long time and are eager to get back to work; other artists might be in a place where they’re weighing things out,” Crockett said. “I think everyone’s been really understanding of the precariousness of some of the details.”

Still, streams are here to stay

Many presenters have pivoted to digital performances over the past year — BRIC’s recent JazzFest was completely virtual, while City Parks has been running its SummerStage anywhere series for several months. Lubov said SummerStage’s streaming content has drawn a new international audience that her organization hopes to grow.

“When we have our in-person festival going on, the goal is to livestream shows as long as the artists provide permissions,” she said. “Even if you’re not in Central Park, you can still watch what’s going on in Central Park. I do think all of the digital programming that we’ve been doing over the last year is absolutely here to stay.”

COVID-19 has increased collaboration off-stage

While there has always been some level of collaboration among outdoor presenters in the city, the COVID-19 pandemic has ratcheted up the communication — from discussions about seating to collectively lobbying state legislature for guidance.

“There are a lot of solves for these restrictions, etc., but they all have heavy price tags and heavy human costs,” Crockett said. “I’ve been inspired by people’s willingness to take these curveballs as they come. It’s just given me moral support to be able to confide in colleagues and say, ‘Yeah, I don’t understand this either. Let’s figure it out together.’”

Photo courtesy of SummerStage.
Photo courtesy of SummerStage.

A coalition of outdoor operators has also formed to collectively lobby the state for guidance, connecting NYC and statewide presenters, such as Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the Glimmerglass Festival.

“I have never in my career seen operators collaborate in this way,” said Deane from NYIVA. “Nobody’s holding any proprietary information close to their chest. People are sharing verbiage that they’re adding to contracts, sharing best practices.”

Deane wishes the corporate events space would be as collaborative, while Lubov added that she hopes “our conversations continue even after we all get back to some semblance of normal.”

City Parks also plans to offer grants to smaller presenters to help keep summer performances alive throughout the boroughs.

The show will go on

Despite the many obstacles ahead for outdoor presenters, everyone interviewed for this article remains hopeful that the music won’t stop.

“So much of the time, the focus is on, ‘Is the talent really good or do we have the newest shiny disco ball?’” Deane said. “We’re at an interesting moment where we have to focus all of our care on the real minutia of our operations — really drilling down to how we can operate a venue or an event in a way that’s really safe for patrons but still feels really fun. The care with which we treat patrons should be reflective of the effort that they’re making.”

Lubov hopes concertgoers can get back to the “joy and elation and intensity that you get from watching a show in pre-pandemic times,” but conceded that she doesn’t know whether “you’ll necessarily feel that same energy” while socially distanced or seated.

“Live music is live music, and I desperately want to see it in person, no matter how many people are in the audience,” she said. “[But] it’s gonna be weird to be around other people.”

Crockett said she’s sensitive to the musical experience and expects that, much like last summer, parks will be full of unsanctioned music.

“Obviously I want people to be safe,” she said, encouraging people to get vaccinated and continue to wear masks. “I think experiencing live music outside is so liberating, and we all miss that feeling, so we’re figuring out how to have that while also prioritizing everyone’s safety.”

Crockett also urged people to support their music community at-large and to raise awareness about the cultural and economic importance of free live music.

“Whether that’s going to small businesses in your neighborhood who do live music to keep them afloat, donating to your favorite free festival, or simply just raising awareness with your friends and then raising awareness with your local officials,” she said. “It just needs to stay top of mind because the arts [are] just so part and parcel to this city.”

Note: This post was updated to reflect that Lincoln Center will host performances at Damrosch Park bandshell.

Top Image: Photo courtesy of BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!