Syracuse, N.Y. — At no point during Tuesday’s rally against Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus-inspired restrictions on live entertainment did any of the speakers use the word “incidental.”
“It’s not a word we would use,” said rally organizer Julie Leone, co-owner of the Syracuse music venue The 443 Social Club. “It’s offensive. We’re not incidental. What we do is not incidental.”
Instead, the “Let the Music Play” rally that drew at least 100 people to the steps of Syracuse City Hall focused on state rules that say only “incidental” music can be played at bars, restaurants, clubs or theaters. The rules prohibit venues that serve alcohol from advertising shows or charging customers for live entertainment through tickets or cover charges.
State officials have argued that the rules are meant to limit crowds and control the potential spread of the coronavirus.
Those at Tuesday’s rally, ranging from musicians to venue owners and promoters, strongly disagree.
They said the rules make no sense and are killing the entertainment industry across the state.
“It’s idiotic and counterintuitive,” said longtime Central New York musician Gary Frenay. “Tickets are the best way to ensure that you’re controlling the crowd. Not to mention they help us pay our bills.”
Ty Marshall, director of the Center for the Arts in Homer, noted the irony of Cuomo’s oft-repeated statements that his order are based on science. He pointed to the group of speakers on the City Hall steps, which included venue operators like Leone and Westcott Theater owner Dan Mastronardi.
“What you see up here are the experts in the science of gathering people together safely,” Marshall said.
Stacey Waterman, a veteran backstage manager and promoter, made a plea to the governor to relax the rules.
“Do not let another small business close it doors,” she said. “These folks need to get back to work.”
Many of the speakers at the rally said times have been heard for the industry since the first orders shutting down bars, restaurants and similar venues in March. Frenay noted he’d played eight gigs in the past six months, a period in which he’d typically play 50 to 60.
Almost all said they agreed with the need for sensible controls of the coronavirus, such as masks and distancing.
What frustrated people like Leone was that she had worked on plans to restart her music club over the summer, and had spent thousands of dollars to retrofit the space to accommodate the rules.
Then in August, just after The 443 Social Club reopened, the state clarified its rules on live entertainment at places with liquor licenses, which most music venues have.
That clarification, posted in Q&A format on the State Liquor Authority web site, reads: “This means that advertised and/or ticketed shows are not permissible. Music should be incidental to the dining experience and not the draw itself.”
Leone, like others, decided to shut down again because she didn’t know how to make her business work under those guidelines. She has since attempted a limited reopening using outdoor space.
“It was kind of a kick in the teeth,” she said of the state guidelines.
Dan Mastronardi, owner of the Westcott Theater is Syracuse, finds himself in the same bind of how to make his business work if he can’t advertise his shows or sell tickets. “It’s foolish,” he said.
He urged the state to reconsider.
“Music is healing,” he said, to a strong supportive cheer from the crowd. “And we could use some healing right now.”
Local musician Joe Altier made that point, too, by quoting from Billy Joel’s song “Piano Man,” (which Altier said is a song he “loves to hate and hates to love.”
“It’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday,” he quoted from Joel’s lyrics. “And the manager gives me a smile, ’cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been comin’ to see, to forget about life for a while.”
At the rally’s conclusion, local musician Donna Colton and her husband Sam Patterelli performed a song they wrote more than 10 years ago called “Time for a Change.”
“How much more of this do they think we can take?” Colton sang. “How many more rules are they gonna break?”
Another speaker, State Assemblyman Al Stirpe, D-Cicero, said he’s been working to get the message from the entertainment community to the decision-makers in Albany. He forwarded the detailed reopening plans from operators like Mastronardi and Leone to those officials.
He said he’s hopeful there will some relaxing of the rules soon, perhaps with Central New York as a pilot area.
“We can give that a try,” he said. “We have to have some movement here.”
Tuesday’s rally ended with the playing of The Doobie Brothers’ song “Listen to the Music” and it’s refrain: “Let the Music Play.”
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