The story behind the slow rollout of live music in Ohio

Joel Oliphint
Popgun, featuring vocalists Joey Hebdo (left) and Jonathan Elliott (right), drummer Tony McClung and bassist Jeff Ciampa, perform at Natalie's Music Hall & Kitchen in Grandview on Wednesday, May 27.

Last night, a group of local musicians got together onstage at Natalie’s Music Hall & Kitchen in Grandview and performed for about 50 people.

A few months ago, this would not have been a noteworthy occurrence. Normally, Natalie’s hosts live music nearly every night at its Grandview and Worthington locations. But these are not normal times. Ever since Ohio’s stay-at-home order went out in mid-March, local stages have been mostly empty. With crowds limited to 10, musicians lost gigs and venues temporarily closed. Owners were left wondering if they’d ever reopen.

Recently, though, the door to live music appeared to open just a crack. On May 14, Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton signed the Dine Safe Ohio Order, which allowed restaurants and bars to reopen for dine-in service with certain exceptions and requirements involving social distancing and sanitation. Some restaurants, like Natalie’s, often pair food service with live music. But according to an FAQ onthe state’s coronavirus website, those concerts were still off-limits, just like other forms of entertainment that involve congregating (dancing, billiards, etc.).

That didn’t sit right with Natalie’s co-owner Charlie Jackson and Donato’s CEO Tom Krouse, and the two discussed the matter with fellow board members of the Columbus Music Commission at a meeting last week. If a restaurant could meet the state’s requirements for social distancing, why couldn’t it simultaneously host a seated concert?

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“We had been planning to reopen for live music in June, and we weren’t aware of any directive from officials that we couldn't do that until recently, when we were made aware of this Frequently Asked Questions [document] where it basically said, no, bars and restaurants can't do live music,” said Jackson, who had been putting together a plan with his daughter, co-owner Natalie Jackson, involving a half-capacity seating layout with tables 6 feet apart, no congregating, masks worn by all restaurant staff and other safety measures. “We were just saying, ‘Listen, you gotta allow us to do this as long as we're compliant.’” 

Krouse, who’s also a singer and guitarist in local act Grassinine, agreed. “I have a lot of friends who are musicians, and they were basically dead in the water,” said Krouse, who volunteered to help kick the concern up a level to Ohio’s decision-makers. “I'm a member of the Ohio Restaurant Association, and I have been involved the last two months with [president and CEO] John Barker and [government relations director] Tod Bowen, who run things over there. I’ve been in pretty close communication with them throughout this whole issue. … So Thursday night [May 21], I started talking with John Barker, and he asked us to put together a formal request to the lieutenant governor, which went to him on Friday. And by Friday night at 7 o'clock they had approved live music in restaurants.”

According to Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, there never was a prohibition on live music. The problem was the health department’s FAQ. “We never once discussed prohibiting a socially distanced performer from being in a restaurant setting. But in some of the guidance that was sent out from the health department, unbeknownst to us, there was a provision that went out to local health departments saying you couldn't do it. ... The FAQ said it, but the FAQ is not the order. The FAQ is what some staff person at the Department of Health sent out. That guidance, in my mind, was always erroneous,” Husted said. “There's no doubt that guidance created a lot of confusion for people.” 

Husted said he wasn’t even aware of the live music language in the FAQ until a restaurant owner recently called him in tears. “Her whole business model [involved] an outdoor setting where she had a person sitting on a chair, playing the guitar and singing. And she said, ‘This order blocks that.’ And I said, ‘No, it doesn’t. I was involved in writing the order. It doesn't block it,’” said Husted, who emphasized the overarching principles behind the order. “We want people to behave responsibly and respectfully of one another, and the health guidance is that people should stay 6 feet apart and we should wash our hands and not touch our face and disinfect surfaces and not congregate and not gather in large groups. … We have to get the big things right. We can't micromanage everything.”

Since Friday’s revision to the language, theDine Safe Ohio Order FAQ now gives the following guidance: “Musicians and bands may perform in restaurants and bars as long as the individuals who are performing maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet from all other people including, but not limited to, fellow performers and restaurant and bar patrons and staff. Disc jockeys are permitted as long as they practice social distancing." 

Of course, not all live music venues have a full kitchen and enough space to seat patrons 6 feet apart and a dozen feet away from a stage that also has to be large enough to accommodate 6 feet of distance between performers. But last night at Natalie’s Music Hall & Kitchen, the six musicians in Popgun, a band of local music vets who cover songs from the ’70s and ’80s, mostly managed to keep their distance from each other while performing.

“Welcome back,” Charlie Jackson said from the stage before the show as a few dozen guests, seated mostly at tables of four, cheered. The patrons, most of whom were in the 40-plus demographic, watched the show from their seats without masks, though they had to wear masks during trips to the bathroom (and most guests remembered to do so). No one ordered at the bar, and all servers were in masks. Of the musicians onstage, only guitarist Dennis Hodges performed in a mask, and the first row of tables was set back about 12 feet from vocalists Jonathan Elliott and Joey Hebdo. [Correction, 5/29: Keyboardist Lucas Holmes also wore a mask.]

The night kicked off with the premiere of a video produced by Popgun bassist Jeff Ciampa that features 24 Columbus musicians collaborating on the feel-good song “With a Little Help from My Friends,” which is also available as apay-what-you-want download on the Natalie’s website. The venue alsolivestreamed the event on Facebook, with high-quality audio and video (including multiple camera angles). Jackson said the livestream aspect will likely continue as a way to spread the music to those who can’t attend, and as a way to raise money for the musicians. Most of the night, more people were watching on Facebook than could fit in the room, and as of this afternoon the video had more than 3,000 views.

From the get-go, guests were smiling, swaying, clapping and hollering in their seats. Popgun is a cut above your typical cover band, with top-notch musicianship from every performer onstage. And both Natalie’s locations are designed to be listening rooms, with better-than-average sound and lighting, so the audience quickly and easily got wrapped up in the music. After a few songs, it all felt surprisingly… normal. It was just a concert.

Looking down on the crowd from the balcony, other than the masked servers and the reduced capacity (and a more-stirring-than-usual finale, featuring an emotional rendition of “With a Little Help from My Friends”), everything looked and felt like it would have a few months ago. The strange part, really, is that this show was momentous at all. Yes, it was socially distant, but it didn’tfeel socially distant. It felt communal, and it signaled something hopeful — the idea that maybe we can see live music again in Columbus, together, more often. Maybe “normal” isn’t quite as far off anymore.