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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / The Tivoli theatre is seen on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Tivoli will be re-opening after shutting down because of coronavirus, with limited seating as well as other precautions to ensure social distancing.

A year ago, the biggest decisions people had to worry about before attending a live music show, movie or a play were what to wear, what time to get there, where to eat and, oh, don't forget the tickets.

Now, you need to add masks to the list of things not to leave at home.

Obviously, things have gotten a little more complicated, as event producers now have to contend not only with preventing the spread of the coronavirus, but doing so in a way that makes people feel safe enough to want to attend.

There are three reopenings of some of the larger venues in the Chattanooga area this weekend, and they should give fans and event producers a good idea of what the future might look like. Locally, The Signal and the Tivoli Theatre will host events for the first time since March, and the Caverns in Pelham, Tennessee, near Monteagle Mountain will host Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Isbell will play on Friday, Saturday and Sunday in a new outdoor amphitheater recently built on the property.

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Entertainment venues ready to reopen

"We are excited to reopen, and we want to be safe and healthy for everyone so we can do more events," said Nick Wilkinson, executive director of the Tivoli Foundation.

Fans of live music and entertainment got a taste of what attending events might look like with the recent Chattanooga Unite shows at the Tennessee Riverpark.

The Unite shows featured designated areas marked by painted circles on the grass for people to use as their own spaces, as well as other safety measures either mandated by Hamilton County or suggested by the state's Tennessee Pledge voluntary guidelines.

Local dentist David Champion is a music fan with a history of traveling around the country to festivals and concerts, and he looks forward to being able to attend more of them. He went to one of the Chattanooga Unite shows and said via text that he appreciated the safety measures that were in place.

"We went the one time and felt completely safe (it helps I am not a super COVID paranoid person since I kinda have some knowledge on the medical side of viral loads and transmissions, i.e., I am not going to catch it simply walking past you but require more prolonged contact).

"It was obvious where we could sit with the distanced circles on the ground painted, and there was never more than two people in line at beer/wine/spirits line ... bathroom was not an issue either ... we did not eat at food trucks as it was limited what they had and not what we wanted ... we would certainly have gone to another show, but we were out of town," Champion said.

The three weekend events will go a long way toward not only reopening things, but also to let promoters and fans get an idea of how things will operate into the foreseeable future.

"We want to be safe and responsible, and we believe we've done our diligence," said Caverns owner Todd Mayo.

Managers of each of the facilities said they have created long lists of guidelines and procedures that will be followed by staff and patrons, including limited seating with designated pods, masks, hand sanitizer stations and touchless payment options at concession areas.

All agreed that fan perception of safety is imperative. They also said that their margins for success and profit were already tight before the pandemic. Reducing the number of allowable patrons into their facilities means they are not likely to make money, but they are glad to be open, they said.

Mayo said he didn't even think the Caverns would be able to have any events this year, much less in a new amphitheater on the property.

"What happened was, we were pretty much resigned to the reality that we would not do concerts at the Caverns because you can't do social distancing in there because the [profit] margins are too slim," he said.

But then Mayo got a call from a friend asking if he'd seen Gisburne Park in England. The friend said it reminded him of the property around the Caverns.

"We looked and started doing some math and then clearing the thickets and brambles and did some logging and found these boulders that I thought weren't movable. Turns out they were. And in the last six weeks, we created a mini amphitheater in a gorge that looks like a mini Red Rocks," Mayo said in reference to the iconic venue in Colorado. "It's beautiful."

Fans will have "almost a VIP experience" with enter-in and exit-out zones and prepared pods ready and waiting, he said. Normal capacity will be between 4,000-5,000 people, but it's limited to 850 this weekend.

"All you do is show up with your chair, get your temperature taken at the entrance, and we will have your pod ready with sandwiches and a bucket of beer," Mayo said.

Isbell, he said, is the perfect artist to christen the space for what Mayo said will be the only show of the year because of the uncertainties of weather. He said he believes Isbell fans in particular understand the need for the safety measures and for people to follow them.

"This is a proof of concept for us for what to do in the spring or summer if the industry comes back," Mayo said. "We need the patrons to be respectful, and people who understand what a privilege it is to gather."

While many may think of the Tivoli as primarily a place for live music, it has always also been a venue for live productions such as operas and Broadway shows, in addition to movies. In 2018, after the death of board member and film buff Bobby Stone, operators installed a new surround sound system and the largest drop-down screen in North America and created the Bobby Stone Film Series.

The Tivoli will show "42" at 7 p.m. Friday, "Back to the Future" at 3 and 7 p.m. on Saturday and "Jurassic Park" at 2 and 6 p.m. on Sunday.

"Movies are the safest way we can think of to use the greatest film system in North America and get people back into the theater," Wilkinson said.

Seating will only be in the lower level with plenty of open seating between patrons.

"We will have pods like seat clusters, and we will tape off entire rows," Wilkinson said. "We will have hand sanitizers everywhere and even limit the number of people in the bathrooms."

The Tivoli has installed new metal-detecting machines that allow for hands-free operation, as well as signs that direct people how to enter and exit the lobby and seating areas. Seating will be 12%, or about 225 people of the nearly 1,700-seat capacity.

Masks will be required in all areas of the building except when seated and eating or drinking.

The Signal is one of the larger venues in town with a capacity of about 1,300 people. Capacity for Friday night's show featuring Whitey Morgan is set at 20%. New venue manager Allison Ciccarelli said she first sat down with pencil and paper and drew up a plan for seating the 250 guests, which she felt like was a good, safe number to start with, and then she went to the venue and started moving things around to make it work.

"We are using the Tennessee Pledge as it gives a good guideline, and then I came up with different floor plans and then started making sure they could work and fit in the room. I wanted to make sure there were no blocked views and things like that. Really, it was just building on it and seeing what works, and I gave myself room to grow."

Ciccarelli said one way the venue hopes to make up for lower revenue associated with smaller capacities will be by having bands do two shows a night. She said many of the bands they have contacted are agreeable, "because they just want to play, and be safe. They don't want to get sick or get anybody sick."

Masks will be required unless you are seated at your pod eating or drinking, and temperatures will be checked at the door.

"We just want people to have a good time," Ciccarelli said.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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