Robert Gehrke: Live music is returning to Utah. Are we ready for it?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

I got an email last week that thrilled me and filled me with anxiety. Live music, one of the things I’ve missed the most, is coming back. But after a year spent hunkered down, avoiding crowds and minimizing risk, am I ready to come back to live music? Is anyone?

We’ve all watched the line charting our coronavirus case counts dropping and the line reflecting the number of vaccines in arms rising even faster. The further apart those lines get, the closer we get to a return to normal.

What is “normal” going to look like?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been emerging from my hidey-hole. So have a lot of you. Cellphone tracking data has shown Utahns’ mobility is higher than it has been since the beginning of the pandemic.

I’ve gone to a couple restaurants and coffee shops and popped into my favorite bar to see some of the old crowd and it has felt surprisingly comfortable. But even the notion of an indoor concert or a Utah Jazz game makes the heart race and triggers that anxiety.

This is going to be a process, acknowledges Will Sartain, co-owner of the Kilby Court, Urban Lounge and Metro Music Hall concert venues.

They’ve been staging concerts for massively reduced numbers since mid-October — 10% capacity at Urban and just six groups of four allowed in at Kilby. Everyone has to wear masks, including the bands.

Sartain said in theory, with restrictions easing as the county moves to a “moderate” risk level he could open things up more, but he plans to keep “operating in pandemic mode” for indoor and outdoor shows to let people (like me) get comfortable.

“I want to provide this ease-in situation for anyone feeling unsure about going back to a concert — it’s semi-limited capacity and I can go outside and see a show,” he said. “It’s not just a safety issue anymore. It feels psychologically weird.”

By July 1, Sartain said, he plans on things being back to normal. By that time, people should be vaccinated and those who choose not to are responsible for themselves. And he is anticipating — “if everything goes the way we think it will” — booking the first Twilight Concert of the year at the Gallivan Center on Aug. 19, with full capacity.

Darin Piccoli, co-owner of The State Room and The Commonwealth Room, said they are taking longer to reopen, partly because national acts are taking longer to put together tours, but also to give time for more people to get vaccinated.

“I don’t want to babysit shows. I want people to be able to come to shows and sit next to each other and be comfortable and safe,” Piccoli said. “If I’m not comfortable going to a show, it’s really hard for me to justify opening for other people.”

He’s hoping to host some outdoor events during the summer and stage indoor concerts later in the fall.

If a few hundred or few thousand people at a concert is one level of comfort, how do you handle thousands of raucous fans at a Jazz game? Team officials are working with the NBA and Utah Department of Health to navigate that.

After finishing last season “in the bubble,” the Jazz was one of the first teams to let fans in, selling tickets to just under 2,000 for the home opener shortly after Christmas. In early February that ramped up to 3,902 fans and after the All Star break it has increased to about 5,600 seats, clustered in pods of family members or groups attending together.

“This is a topic we talk about all the time and obviously it’s something we’ve had to continually monitor and be flexible with,” said Frank Zang, vice president of communications for the team. “People have been responsive to mask and health protocols because they want the games to go on.”

Fans are masked, socially distanced, screened as they enter the arena and all concessions sales are done by phone or touchscreens, Zang said — protocols that haven’t changed since the start of this season and are expected to continue for at least the near future.

“It’s ‘proceed with caution.’ … We miss our fans. There’s nothing like being in the arena, especially as we get close to the playoffs with such a good team this year,” Zang said, but he added, “Health trumps all here, a little bit.”

Restaurants around the arena and the valley have been trying to figure out opening up and keeping patrons comfortable, too.

“Since the numbers have been lower and we went to moderate [risk level] our restaurants have seen a huge uptick in business,” Michele Corigliano, executive director of the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association told me.

One restaurant owner, she said, had noted a increase in customers over age 60, those who had been least likely to risk exposure during the pandemic.

“I think people have been stir crazy and wanting to get out and even having one shot of the vaccine gives them enough confidence to go out, where they weren’t going out at all before,” Corigliano said.

As they ramp up, however, owners are having to consider the comfort level of customers and the safety of both patrons and staff. Restaurant workers, who tend to be young, are still weeks away from getting vaccinated.

And those who want to keep face masks after the Legislature’s April 10 termination of the state mask mandate are concerned about hostile diners if the businesses no longer have the backing of a state requirement.

Therein is the larger point: Everyone’s level of comfort is going to be different. Maybe you’re fine going to a basketball game or a restaurant without a mask. Others aren’t. Perhaps you’ve been vaccinated and mostly risk-free. More than 75% of Utahns have not.

That’s going to create friction, a point Gov. Spencer Cox tried to make earlier this month when he told Utahns, “You don’t need to be a jerk” if you come into contact with people more or less at-ease than you are.

I want to get back to concerts, to Jazz games, to restaurants. There’s a good chance my softball team will be back on the field this summer, and I can’t wait to shred my hamstrings after being dormant all year.

All of this will be a process, baby steps for everyone, but if we can be a little patient and understanding, we’ll get back to normal — whatever that looks like.