When Covid lockdowns began, Jeff and Jamie Weeks, owners of Calacino’s Pizzeria and Sports Bar in Beckley, had no idea the threat to their business would get as serious as it did.
“We didn’t see a steady or slow drop in customers at all beforehand,” Jeff said. “It was business as usual, and then it all just stopped in a single day.”
Calacino’s had a big weekend of live music planned, and March Madness was set to begin when everything closed down.
“Live music and sports are a huge part of our buisiness,” Jeff said. “When both of those were gone, we knew we were in trouble.”
Before the pandemic, Calacino’s had live music or karaoke four nights per week.
“We even tried to have a band come in while we were closed to record a show to play online, but the ABCA (West Virginia Alcohol Beverage Control Administration) wouldn’t allow them to come inside the building at all,” said Jeff.
“As far as the food goes, it was pick-up at the door only for a while.”
Jeff said that it was hard to keep employees at even a skeleton crew because without tipping customers they were able to make more money on unemployment.
“We even tried to rotate servers for some time, trying to keep it fair for everyone, but we eventually had to close the doors altogether for a few months.”
Calacino’s used part of that down time to do some remodeling.
“It was a difficult decision to upgrade, when we weren’t sure if and when things were going to get back to normal,” Jeff said. “But we built this place on live entertainment, and we were determined to come out of the other side of this stronger than ever.”
When restrictions started lifting, it was a very confusing time to operate a music venue.
“At first, we were only allowed to have resturaunt customers outside at a 25 percent capacity,” Jeff said. “Then it changed to 50 percent capacity inside with six feet of distance between tables.”
But live music was still not permitted for some time.
“When restrictions finally allowed music back, it could only be outside, and no more than a duo,” Jeff said. “Now the problem was that it was getting too cold in the evenings to be outside.”
But they weren’t giving up. Calacino’s brought in tents and even large space heaters.
“People were ready to get back out and see live music,” said Jeff. “They would sit outside huddled around the heaters and under their own blankets.”
They went through several stages of restrictions, building plexiglass barriers, moving musicians around, and there was even a time that musicians had to play facing outside with all the fans inside looking at their backs.
But Calacino’s followed all the guidelines and battled through the difficult times. By the time live music restrictions were lifted, the venue had struggled as much as the musicians had.
“Bands were playing at reduced rates, just because they were happy to be in front of an audience,” Jeff said. “We paid what we could until we got on our feet again, and we also really stressed to our customers the importance of tipping the musicians. It was a tough time for all of us.”
In an effort to get live music into their establishments, some venues took very different approaches to comply with the quickly changing rules.
“Several places built plexiglass barriers and moved the crowd 20 feet away from the stage,” said Clinton Scott from the Untrained Professionals. “It was like singing inside of a box.”
But Scott was ready to get back on stage, and played no matter the different rules.
For some time, ABCA and Health Department restrictions for outdoor seating were more relaxed than for indoor seating. For this reason, many venues created improvised outdoor seating. These changes varied from tents, plywood structures, to even temporary plastic fences. The ABCA for the first time allowed alcohol to be taken into these areas once they passed inspection. These were all just added costs for businesses that were already operating below full capacity.
Not every venue just threw something together quickly. Some took the time to build something nice. When Adventures on the Gorge in Lansing built a wood structure to house their plexiglass barrier, they put some pride into it. It was beautifully made, stained, and easy to look at.
“If you had to look at it, I guess they wanted it to be pretty,” said Matt Mullins from Matt Mullins and the Bringdowns. “The view of the Gorge is beautiful there, and they certainly didn’t mess it up with a trashy barrier.”
Some venues handled things very differently.
The Mad Hatter Club in Beckley is a small venue that often offers live music, performing arts shows, and video poker.
“We closed immediately during the lockdown, applied for unemployment, and deferred any payments that we could,” said owner Stephanie Rose Bragg. “Luckily, I had some savings and was able to help my employees out until some checks started coming in.”
The Mad Hatter reopened when they were allowed, but didn’t attempt to bring live music back until all restrictions had been lifted.
“We had to put barriers between every poker machine, and we built a small outdoor area that had never been allowed before,” Bragg said. “We also had to switch from glassware to disposable plastic. All this ran costs up, and we were only operating at half capacity.”
That capacity for the Mad Hatter was only 30 at the time.
When restrictions started lifting, The Watering Hole in Shady Spring got creative with their already small space.
“We sealed up an old porch and put up a shower curtain,” said Chrissy Hall, co-owner. “ABCA was very understanding with us, and the musicians were able to play behind the curtain.” Half capacity for the Watering Hole was only 15 at the time. They have since built an outdoor seating area, so if anything like this ever happens again, they will be better prepared.
Fosters Main Street Tavern had its own unique hurdles to overcome as restrictions were lifted. Two downtown Beckley buildings had collapsed across the street during the shutdowns, and the entire block was barricaded off.
“With no street traffic, street parking, or even foot traffic, it just wasn’t worth wrestling with all the regulations,” said Buzz Burke, the owner, who is affectionately known simply as Buzzy by the community.
“We may have been able to deal with the Covid restrictions or the street shutdowns individually, but combined, it was just too much,” Buzzy said.
The rules changed so many times as restrictions were lifted, that it was difficult to keep up. What was OK to do on Wednesday night might have been forbidden by Friday, and this created countless scheduling issues. Venue owners, booking agents, and band members alike did their best to keep up, but it was easy to get frustrated or even angry.
“They were telling us that Covid wasn’t airborne at the same time they were making us build barriers and drape plastic sheets,” said Mike Turner, general manager of the Skyline Lodge, Pub & Grill in Ghent. “It felt like the restrictions were more government-related than aimed at safety.”
The Skyline even built a separate enclosed stage to keep musicians away from the customers.
“But the ABCA shut it down because it was too close to our building and they considered it all one structure,” Turner said.
But the fans were more concerned with being entertained than they were with the restrictions.
“Our first live show at 50 percent capacity was the Untrained Professionals, and the people we had to turn away just hung around the building and the parking lot so they could hear the music. It was more important to them to hear the band than it was to be part of the crowd.”