How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening

The way bars and promoters are adapting in deconfinement presents a major shift in the city’s nightlife scene.

How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening

After green-lighting seated indoor gatherings of up to 50 people on June 15 — with 1.5 to 2-metre distancing and other COVID-19 safety measures in place — in cinemas and “showbars,” Quebec public health authorities announced that all bars, along with casinos, hotels, amusement parks and spas, could reopen, effective immediately. Though dancing is verboten (making the reopening of nightclubs virtually pointless, or extremely difficult to manage), and the province’s public health director Horacio Arruda said that live singing indoors should continue to be prohibited (in a response to a questions about places of worship, mind you), few guidelines have been shared with the public regarding how bars — particularly showbars with small capacities — can function during the ongoing pandemic.

We contacted the owners or co-owners of four Montreal establishments about how (and if) they’re managing:

Mauro Pezzente (Casa del Popol / la Sala Rossa)

(How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening)
Bernardino Femminielli at Casa del Popolo (How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening)

“The Casa is going to open on July 9 — that’s what my plan is, I hope — but just the bar side. On the venue side, we actually took the stage down a couple of months ago. Kiva (Stimac, co-owner of the venues, and Pezzente’s wife) is going to start her print shop on the venue side. That’s already built and ready to go. She’s just doing her inventory now and hoping to open on July 9 as well.

“La Sala Rossa is basically closed, for now. I’m really not interested in doing any live shows. Kiva and I are really scared and anxious of the idea of opening up again. I’ve read all these things about every bar and concert hall in the world that reopens, two or three weeks later there’s something bad that happens.

“We’re just going to try to focus on recording and live streams. We learned quite a bit over the past month (during the smaller streaming edition of their Suoni per il Popolo festival) about how to do them properly, technologically speaking, and also production-wise. We’re pretty well set up. There were a few shows that happened that we were really happy with. To do a really good show, you need some good production otherwise it’s just going to look like somebody in their living room, and that’s what we didn’t want to have.”

Living room blinds

Pezzente and Stimac’s other venue, la Vitrola, will be closing permanently. They have received Commercial Rent Assistance via their landlord for Casa del Popolo, which has been entirely closed since the start of the pandemic, and have used the CEBA small-business loan and wage subsidy aid from the federal government.

See the new Casa del Popolo terrasse here

Sergio Da Silva (co-owner of Turbo Haüs)

(How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening)
Turbo Haüs terrasse (How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening)

“Ultimately the directives set by anyone won’t be as important as (what businesses do) and people’s sense of personal responsibility. The Black Lives Matter protests were inspiring for a number of reasons but in terms of COVID-19 specifically, seeing people taking the necessary steps to keep themselves and others safe while being in big groups made me optimistic that people can be the same way in their day to day lives, whether they’re going out to get groceries, going to work or enjoying themselves in parks, bars and restaurants. If people can do that, then it won’t be difficult and the expense will be minimal. 

“We aren’t receiving money directly from the city but they have supported businesses in different ways like waiving the terrasse fees, which for us would have been quite high. We were able to get the CEBA loan from the feds and the rent subsidy through our landlord as well. We’re very grateful for all of it but the outpouring of support from people in the community really was the game changer. We had people buy shirts from all over North America and donate money out of nowhere. It’s a huge morale booster knowing people care about all the hard work we’re putting in. 

“We’re going to start slowly and open up more and more as we get more comfortable and better at dealing with the new realities of what running a bar has become. We’re going to take advantage of not having to worry about booking shows to focus on that aspect of the business and really sharpen our skills on the bar and service side of things as well as continue to take stock of what our responsibilities are in terms of being a space for different artists and communities to come together to make art or just be together.”

For the time being, non-staff members won’t be permitted inside the bar unless it’s to use the bathroom. When the interior eventually reopens, it will be at 30 per cent capacity. Staff will be required to use face-shields.

Turbo Haüs website

Meyer Billurcu (co-owner of Blue Skies Turn Black, Bar le Ritz PDB)

Bar le Ritz PDB exterior (How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening)

“We’re looking at 2021 at the earliest,” he says in reference to BSTB concerts. “We actually have events confirmed but it’s all based on regulations and where we’re at come that time. Everyone’s just holding their breath hoping that (venues) will be able to start opening up and operating then.”

BSTB is involved in the SAT’s Domesicle event planned for Aug. 15, where 50 audience members will be seated with distancing in place. If/when the government expands the allowed capacity for shows to 250 in mid-July, BSTB may consider hosting outdoor shows.

“We deal a lot with touring bands from all over the world and with the borders being closed until at least July 21, everything that we do is going to rely on local talent,” he says. “(The States is) where a lot of our business comes from but looking at the situation down there, clearly it’s out of control and they don’t have a good grasp on it. Until that happens I feel a lot better with the border staying closed, even though that’s bad for (BSTB). I’d rather it re-open when we can do it safely and properly.”

As for Bar le Ritz, “We talked about it and based on the current guidelines it just doesn’t make sense for us to reopen. Our biggest nights are our DJ nights, our dance parties, and we’re not allowed dancing right now. The Ritz had tried for a long time to operate as both a venue and neighbourhood bar but that just never really worked out for us, so we’re not opening until the situation is a little bit better.”

Billurcu says that he and his partners in Bar le Ritz have been extremely fortunate to have easy-going landlords who have not asked for rent since March. They are now applying for Commercial Rent Assistance.

“If we weren’t getting rent relief, I don’t know how much longer (the bar) would be able to survive.”

Bar le Ritz PDB website

Isis Paola Giraldo (co-owner of Résonance Café)

music venues reopening
Isis Paola Giraldo and Martin Heslop (How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening)

The Parc Avenue jazz venue, restaurant and café was closed for the first two months of the pandemic but started a live streaming concert series nine weeks ago and reopened for food delivery six weeks ago. Giraldo is a touring musician who usually works remotely but has taken on more of a hands-on managerial role due to staff cuts and being grounded, not to mention preparing to relocate.

“Martin (Heslop, her partner in life and business) and I are going to be moving to Toronto so we wanted to get things rolling so that when we move we have a working model for the space. We’re taking it week by week. It’s a very unstable model right now for the restaurant industry, let alone for venues. Nothing is normal.

“We’ve been doing a live-stream series — though not in the space — every Saturday night with three musicians from different parts of the world, it’s not just Montreal. It’s a very personal series. As a musician, sometimes a lot of my friends aren’t in Montreal and it’s been really fun to be able to include them. That’s been a really cool and positive thing about having this platform online.

“We thought it would be a cool idea to try and keep the attention on the (music) community as much as we could. That’s always been our main focus with the space. The café has taken on a lot of importance, highlighting vegetarian food and all that, but the place started with a vision to be a hub for creative music.”

Though Résonance is currently operating on “low power mode,” some staff has returned to serve food and drinks, and they’re consulting with their in-house non-profit organization (les Sympathiques) about starting an in-house weekly concert series in August. Duos or trios would perform on Saturday nights, with one staff member on sound and one taking tickets, which would be sold in advance. The capacity would be limited to only 15 people, with no food or drink service during the show. 

“That’s the main concern. It’s not like people are going to be wearing masks if they’re eating, so that doesn’t really feel like the right thing to do. We will try to make it as safe as possible for the staff, the musicians and the audience.” ■

Résonance Café website

For more music coverage, please visit our Music section.

How four Montreal music venues are approaching reopening