The Music Institute folk club had met regularly at the Guildford Institute, an educational community hub in the centre of the town, until March 2020 when, like every other live music venue in the country, we closed our doors at the beginning of the first lockdown. Similarly, like all other venues, we have been wondering if and when to reopen ever since.
As I had to shield throughout the pandemic for health reasons, and my co-organiser David Steptoe became a father early last year, there was a point when we both seriously considered closing the club forever. But before we came to a final decision several of our resident singers and helpers started urging us to reopen. In no time we came to a decision – several, in fact.
First, it was decided that for the foreseeable future we would continue to run our very successful Come All Ye Open Zoom sessions online and that only our guest nights would be held in the physical club room. Second, we agreed that, initially at least, we would meet only once a month rather than fortnightly.
Finally, and most importantly, it was decided that if the resident singers and helpers were prepared to run the club on the night, including staffing the bar, assuming venue caretaker responsibilities and providing guest accommodation etc, I would continue with the “behind the scenes” administration such as bookings, publicity, accounts and box office.
I immediately set about writing some handover instructions, an interesting exercise in itself, and after two meetings, one on Zoom and one at the venue, we had identified who would be responsible for what and between us we had produced a Covid risk assessment. The latter was by far the hardest thing to do as, to be honest, none of us had ever written a risk assessment before despite our combined experience in organising folk clubs.
‘Producing a Covid risk assessment was by far the hardest thing to do. We focused on maximising everyone’s security’
Even though we were not reopening the folk club until after “freedom day” and the government’s removal of nearly all Covid-19 restrictions, discussions with the management of the Guildford Institute suggested that there was still a reluctance on the part of “a mature audience” to return to indoor events.
Our risk assessment therefore focused on maximising the Covid security of everyone present in order to provide some level of reassurance to our audience in the hope that they would feel safe to come back.
The issues we addressed were:
1 Avoidance of introducing the virus. Audience members and booked guests were requested to be either double-vaccinated or to have had a negative lateral flow test immediately before attending the folk club and should stay away if they display any symptoms of infection. This information had to be included in all of the folk club’s publicity including its website, the ticketing site and our social media. In order to reassure potential purchasers we guaranteed a full refund of the ticket price should they develop symptoms or fail a Covid test.
2 Avoidance of spreading the virus. The audience and guests were requested to wear masks when moving around the building and congregating at the bar. There was considerable discussion on whether the audience should be asked to wear masks during chorus songs and it was eventually decided to ask people to do so. In the event this has yet to be tested as thus far our guests have avoided chorus songs. The folk club holds a supply of disposable face masks at the door should anyone forget to bring one. We also have a couple of hand sanitiser dispensers to supplement those provided by the Guildford Institute.
3 Movement around the building, ventilation, cleaning. We referred to the Guildford Institute’s risk assessment on these points and complied with their procedures. The venue has a one-way system and the institute’s management is responsible for cleaning and ventilation.
4 Social distancing. It was decided to place the seating so that audience members could sit at least one metre apart from each other but with the flexibility to enable couples and people from the same “bubble” to sit together. This has been achieved by placing tables between rows of seats and inserting an extra aisle. This self-imposed restriction severely limits the number of people we can accommodate, down from 75 to 35.
5 Handling of cash. We were already selling over half of our tickets online before the pandemic so the decision was taken to no longer accept cash on the door. The club invested in a card reader and app (we chose Zettle) which has so far been used exclusively for taking telephone payments rather than selling tickets on the door.
The reopening has proved to be a resounding success in terms of audience response – our first two nights were full houses and the next two have sold out in advance. Everyone has been so pleased to be back together and enjoying live music again and the feedback thus far suggests that people feel very safe in the venue.
However, it is early days and too soon to come to any conclusions. I shall report back in the next edition of Folk London on how things are going and any lessons learned after we have met four times.