'First To Go, Last To Come Back:' Live Event Workers In Limbo As Pandemic Keeps Venues Shuttered

The Boch Center's new Ghost Light Series gives musicians a chance to perform before an empty theater while capacity limits, distancing requirements and the state's phased reopening plan mean many live performances — and the jobs supported by the live events industry — remain on an indefinite pause. (Courtesy Boch Center)
The Boch Center's new Ghost Light Series gives musicians a chance to perform before an empty theater while capacity limits, distancing requirements and the state's phased reopening plan mean many live performances — and the jobs supported by the live events industry — remain on an indefinite pause. (Courtesy Boch Center)

On Labor Day in Copley Square, stagehands and other workers set up for a major event — basically, a combination of a concert, a convention, an exhibit hall and a wedding.

There were no guests, and no performers. There were 270 empty chairs.

"Every chair, every place setting is a job that was out of work," said Mark Consiglio, president of the Massachusetts Live Events Coalition, which hosted the "empty event." "Maybe it was a florist. Maybe it was a videographer. Maybe it was an audio technician."

Other jobs represented by those empty seats, Consiglio said, include wedding DJs, lighting technicians, arena concession workers, parking attendants — people in the various trades and fields connected with live events, whose ranks number about 12 million nationwide and whose livelihoods are indefinitely frozen amid closures, gathering size limits and other restrictions of the pandemic.

"We're in a phase that's beyond reopening," Consiglio said. "We were the first to go, last to come back."

Under the Baker administration's gradual economic and social reopening strategy, "large capacity venues" including stadiums, arenas, dance floors, exhibition halls and convention centers cannot reopen until the fourth and final phase, which hinges on development of a COVID-19 vaccine or other medical intervention.

Theaters and concert halls were allowed to open for outdoor performances only — with capacity limits, distancing requirements and enhanced hygiene protocols, and with singing and the playing of brass or woodwind instruments "discouraged" under state guidelines — when the first step of Phase 3 began in July. Indoor performances fall into the second step of Phase 3, which Gov. Charlie Baker in August put on an indefinite hold as part of his response to an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

A new era of live entertainment has started to take shape, without many of its previous hallmarks and the economic activity they generate.

Professional sports have resumed without fans in the stands — and in the case of hockey and basketball, with all the activity isolated in bubbles outside of Massachusetts. While fans can watch live games again on screens, the return of pro sports has come without benefits for myriad workers tethered to those industries.

And musicians are finding social distancing-friendly ways to perform. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams has been holding shows — including two sold-out Saturday evening performances by pianist Marco Benevento — in its courtyard, where concertgoers wear masks and bring their own chairs.

In Lowell, where the city's signature folk festival was held virtually this year and an annual outdoor summer concert series was postponed until 2021, municipal officials and the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau collaborated for a series of live acoustic sets on downtown streets, from a dozen area musicians.

The Boch Center, in Boston's theater district, is recording half-hour live performances — before an empty house, with no amps and no spotlights — on the Wang Theatre stage as part of its new "Ghost Light Series," which will air on NECN.

While options are now available for spectators — with the aid of nice weather, televisions and computer screens — much still remains on pause for the workers who derive their income from events inside concert halls, arenas and conference centers, with no clear timeline for when they'll be able to return to work.

The live events world is "almost like this subculture with its own economy and its own learning structure" that doesn't always translate directly to a written resume or the credentials a recruiter might seek, Consiglio said, giving the example of a roadie who began traveling with bands as a teenager and is now unemployed for the first time in 30 or 40 years. He said some event workers are trying to pick up part-time work or taking on entry-level jobs to stay afloat while others "are just stuck."

"The live events folks, they're masters of multiple things because they have to do a lot of those things," he said. "They might not have the paper that says they went to college and they understand business administration, but they could probably school you in understanding the economics of how the gate works in a concert or the theater and how people get paid that way."

As some industries and workplaces have gradually reopened, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts remains high, at 16.1 percent in July with 591,000 Bay State residents unemployed.

Consiglio said his group isn't pushing for an immediate restart of live events but wants a role in reopening planning and for programs to be put in place to aid its members who did not qualify for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance or other unemployment benefits, until it's safe for them to return to their jobs.

"We're very pessimistic about the outlook on coming back to work. We don't feel like it's even going to be in 2021," he said.

Production for movies, television shows and streaming services, a field that has some worker overlap with live events, was authorized to resume as part of Phase 3. Momentum there is now starting to pick back up, Massachusetts Production Coalition Executive Director David Hartman said.

Seven major film and TV series projects were on the ground here at the time of the economic shutdown in the spring, Hartman said, and activity has restarted on a handful of productions.

"There should be several more that get back underway throughout the fall," he told the News Service. "Things are starting to come back online. The industry has created very rigorous safety protocols that are in place, and people are adapting to those. We're all just very hopeful that people are able to get back to work safely."

Hartman said he's "optimistic that there will be a pretty high amount of production done" in Massachusetts now that reopening has begun. People are enthusiastic about returning to work, he said, and studios and streaming services are "just chomping at the bit for new content to be produced" after months of global shutdowns.

The production coalition advocated this summer for legislators to include language in an economic development bill that would continue an existing film production tax credit past its Dec. 31, 2022 sunset date. That effort was unsuccessful, though lawmakers could eliminate or push back the sunset through another vehicle.

Supporters of the tax credit say it buoys local workers and businesses, while critics argue that it benefits wealthy, out-of-state movie stars.

"Removing the sunset now would give us a boost in investment into the industry for the long term at a time when we need job creation the most," Hartman said. "What better time to have someone start to lay down the foundation for a new soundstage project that would put construction and many kinds of industries and many kinds of jobs to work right away."



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