Downtown Phoenix bar and music venue Last Exit Live has only has been closed for three months because of COVID-19. Owner Brannon Kleinlein says it feels much longer.
“It’s really dragged out,” he says. “The process of getting started again has been slow. After the entire industry shutdown happened, we had to close, and all our upcoming concerts dried up.”
The drought ends on Friday night. Last Exit Live will open for the first time since mid-March for a show by Valley acts Haley Green Band, Killa Maus, and Something Like Seduction. (It’s the first in a series of weekend shows throughout the summer featuring local bands and performers.)
Kleinlein says even though live music is returning to Last Exit Live, things will feel noticeably different from pre-pandemic concerts at the bar. All employees will be wearing face masks. A 6-foot gap will separate the audience from the stage. Capacity will be limited to 75 people max, and signs urging everyone to social distance will be posted everywhere.
“Right now really isn’t the time to be doing full-blown, full-capacity shows,” Kleinlein says. Smaller gigs, though, are flourishing.
Last Exit Live is the latest in a growing number of metro Phoenix bars to resume hosting concerts within the last month. After the COVID-19 pandemic muted local shows for most of March and April, they’ve returned in earnest.
Large-scale concerts are months, or even years, away as nationally touring artists sit at home. Local musicians and bands can be found performing every weekend at establishments like Cactus Jack’s Ahwatukee Tavern, Scottsdale’s Wasted Grain, and Chopper Johns.
Phoenix New Times has confirmed more than two dozen bars and nightclubs across the Valley have resumed hosting shows since mid-May. As with Last Exit Live, some establishments are using social distancing, limited capacity, and other guidelines specified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for public gatherings, though it varies by business.
(Glendale’s Kimmyz on Greenway, for instance, has closed its dance floor and will have servers wear masks if requested, while Yucca Tap Room in Tempe resumed its Monday open mic night this week and asks singers to bring their own microphones.)
Audiences have attended in ever-increasing numbers, undeterred by a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Arizona. Gina Lombardi, co-owner of Cactus Jack’s, says people see it as an acceptable risk if there are safety guidelines in place. For instance, they have masks available to patrons, reduced staff, hand sanitizer, and have social distancing between tables.
“If bars are willing to do it carefully and have rules in place, there’s really not much difference between going out or going to the grocery store,” she says.
Live music began returning to the Valley shortly after Arizona Governor Doug Ducey allowed restaurants statewide to reopen dine-in service to customers on May 11. Bars and nightspots serving any sort of food fell into a legal gray area, which was used as a loophole to reopen immediately. Gigs by local musicians and DJs started up started within days.
The response was enormous, but not without controversy. Gigantic crowds filled C.A.S.A. in Tempe hours after Ducey’s announcement, earning the bar criticism on social media for not following CDC guidelines or social distancing.
Cactus Jack’s kept things smaller with its first concerts a few days later: a pair of early-evening dinner shows Lombardi describes as “an experiment.”
“When we started up again, we had social distancing, we had only a third of our capacity, and bands played for only a few hours,” she says. “I was really crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, but people showed up.”
Meanwhile, Kleinlein was on the sidelines and taking notes.
“I was playing wait and see. I thought it was a little early to open right after the announcement,” he says. “I also wanted our customers to be comfortable and do everything right, so I started reviewing the CDC and [Arizona Department of Health Services] guidelines to make sure all the recommendations were something that I could pull off. Then, I got to work.”
Kleinlein put together a detailed plan, which he’ll post to the bar’s website days before this weekend’s shows. Besides scaling down crowds to less than a quarter of Last Exit Live’s capacity, it calls for fewer customers at the bar at any one time, having tables 6 feet apart, and offering ample hand sanitizer stations and tissue dispensers.
Since the bar doesn’t have an in-house kitchen, he’s bringing in food trucks for each show, which will cut down on contact between patrons and staff. The roll-up doors leading to the patio will be open so patrons can space out and still see the stage.
“We're in a situation where we want to best utilize our space, both indoors and the outdoors, for people to be able to watch the show and still be comfortable being here,” Kleinlein says.
Last Exit Live’s employees also will keep things sanitized throughout the night, from cleaning glassware and pens between uses to constantly wiping down the bar top, service areas, and bathrooms.
Last week, Kleinlein had Maricopa County Environmental Services Department come out to review his plan and conduct a health inspection.
“The main thing was making sure we’re legally allowed to open and that everybody knows what our plan is, which is why I had the health department come out,” Kleinlein says. “We're not trying to be one of those bars that didn't follow any guidelines and you see them on the national news. I want to be direct and up front with everyone and say, ‘This is what we're doing.’”
Kleinlein says that includes music fans, allowing them to make an informed choice about seeing a show at his bar.
“That's a decision for everybody to make individually, just as it’s up to owners about shows. If people are comfortable with what we’re doing, they can come. If they're still not comfortable coming, I totally get it.”
If COVID-19 infection rates continue increasing, he’s not opposed to canceling concerts again.
“That's certainly on the table. If it keeps getting really bad or if people stop going out, that's something I've got to consider. We'll have to see how things unfold,” Kleinlein says. “Unpredictability is the word of the year and things can change on a daily basis, so you've got to be able to move quickly with what happens.”
Haley Green Band: With Killa Maus and Something Like Seduction. 9 p.m., Friday, June 12. Last Exit Live, 717 South Central Avenue, 602- 271-7000,