The Kennedy Center at dusk
The Kennedy Center at dusk. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

A “socially distant pop-up lounge” that’s a collaboration between HEIST, a downtown nightclub, and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts sold out its opening night in 15 minutes. On Oct. 3, Washingtonians will climb to the rooftop of the performing arts institution and park it in VIP Ultra Cabanas or VIP tables where they’ll enjoy “a unique bottle service offering and a hit-music playlist curated by the hottest DJs in the country,” according to a press release issued this morning. 

There are 20 cabanas and 40 tables, which can seat up to six people each. This means that the pop-up lounge will have a maximum capacity of 360 patrons before staff, security, and other personnel required to run the party. There are three tiers of cabanas named after different degrees of crimes. 

The “Felony VIP Cabana” comes with a $1,000 table minimum and includes a complimentary snack platter, dessert plate, and Red Bull package. The “Misdemeanor VIP Cabana” has a $750 minimum while the “Infraction VIP Cabana” has a $500 minimum. Attendees are required to stay seated while they’re at the venue and not wander from table to table, according to a representative from HEIST.

The timing of the announcement caused confusion in the nightlife community on Monday because it paralleled the rollout of the “Phase Two Live Entertainment Pilot” program, which is designed to test whether nightlife venues can carry out live music events safely.

Per Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office, the six venues that were “invited to participate” in the program lasting through Oct. 30 are: City Winery, GALA Hispanic Theatre, Pearl Street Warehouse, The Kennedy Center, The Hamilton, and Union Stage.

Each of these venues must adhere to a total capacity limit of 50, including patrons, performers, staff, and anyone else inside the venue. At Bowser’s press conference today, Dr. Christopher Rodriguez, director of the Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency (HSEMA), confirmed the 50-person capacity limit is “for both indoor and outdoor venues.”

So how did HEIST X Kennedy Center gain permission to welcome close to eight times as many people as the six venues listed in the pilot program? Some on social media questioned whether nightlife guru and HEIST backer Vinoda Basnaya had special pull with the city. He chairs the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture and sat on one of Bowser’s ReOpen DC committees. 

But John J. Falcicchio, who serves as both the mayor’s chief of staff and Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, says HEIST X Kennedy Center is a different beast than the venues included in the live entertainment pilot program. It’s a restaurant, he argues. 

“The applicant notified HSEMA over the weekend that they would not include live entertainment and therefore operate as a restaurant,” Falcicchio tells City Paper in an email. He spells out that restaurants are allowed to operate if all patrons are seated at socially distanced tables with no more than six people each. He adds that recorded or piped in music “at a conversational level” is permitted and patrons must order food. These stipulations track with Phase 2 reopening guidelines for restaurants and bars.

That HEIST X Kennedy Center is a restaurant is a bit of a tough sell, and not just because snack platters are what’s for dinner. The press release clearly paints it as a nightclub, with verbiage like how the pop-up “marks the first-ever nightclub to make a splash on the rooftop of the world-class D.C. cultural institution.” DCist’s coverage called it a nightclub.

The press release also says there will be “temperature checks for ticketed patrons, artists, and staff,” and the Eventbrite ticket page said “each artist will perform in a socially distanced matter with masks,” before it was taken down once opening night sold out. A publicist who authored the release says she was referring to HEIST staff who “will be dressed in extravagant fun outfits.”

Bottom line? Both the city and HEIST say there will be no live music, despite what early advertisements may have promised. 

What further muddied the waters, however, is the fact that the “Phase Two Live Entertainment Pilot” program announcement, which landed in inboxes Friday, explained that the city is also inviting “operators of outdoor entertainment venues who have already submitted plans to the DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency through its waiver process to review the criteria for hosting live entertainment and resubmit their plans.”  

“Heist Group at the Kennedy Center” is among the eight organizations or venues asked to resubmit their plans, along with the Capitol Riverfront BID, Arena Stage, Busboys and Poets, and others. According to Falcicchio, HEIST X The Kennedy Center “had applied for live entertainment, but this weekend they withdrew that request.”

This commotion comes as D.C.’s live music venues are racking their brains about how to survive continued closures, as the District doesn’t seem poised to move into Phase 3 of reopening in the near future. Dozens have united in trying to get the D.C. Council to pass the Music Venue Relief Act, which pushes for monthly financial aid from October 2020 through May 2021.

“This seems like a reason to not pass music venue relief,” tweeted the local music initiative Listen Local First DC, in reaction to the news that Bowser is allowing six venues to reopen. “So far the city is unwilling to make modest investments to protect one of its largest revenue producers,” adds Mark Lee, the coordinator of the D.C. Nightlife Council. According to the mayor in a nightlife economic report published this year, D.C.’s nightlife industry accounts for $7.1 billion in annual revenue and supports nearly 65,000 jobs.

Pie Shop co-owner Sandra Basanti echoes these concerns. “I hope this isn’t a replacement for genuinely considering relief legislation that will have a much more beneficial impact,” she says. “I don’t see the pilot program actually being beneficial for saving D.C.’s music venues, mostly because I don’t see how the numbers add up.” 

She talks about the high overhead costs that are involved with putting on even a small show and questions how the pilot program participants will make any money when they can only welcome 30 or so attendees. (Remember, the 50 person capacity limit includes staff, performers, and security.) 

“We’re grateful and hopeful for any opportunity to work with the city and abide by restrictions and see what the heck happens,” says Union Stage co-owner Daniel Brindley. His venue is one of the six pilot program participants. He’s already looking to share feedback. For example, he thinks asking the crowd to be positioned 30 feet back from the stage is too aggressive since the lead singer typically isn’t right up at the edge.

Brindley predicts Union Stage will only be able to sell 35 tickets. “We’re more than willing to do this and are approaching it positively, but we don’t have a lot to work with. My hope is that Oct. 30 comes and they see some restrictions can be loosened.”

Most of all, Brindley emphasizes that this is a science experiment, not a panacea. “I don’t want to lose sight of the plight of music venues right now,” he says. “This is not a financial solution to the bigger problem. It would be like if you had cancer and got a massage or took a hot bath. You feel a little better, but you haven’t cured cancer.”

Washingtonian reported this afternoon that two of D.C.’s most storied venues, 9:30 Club and The Anthem, chose not to participate in the pilot program for economic reasons and shared their own metaphor.

“The only thing worse than us being completely shuttered is to open up partially—because we will lose more money than if we are shuttered,” Audrey Fix Schaefer, head of communications for I.M.P., which operates both venues, told the magazine. “There is a maximum of 50 people in a room that is built for 1,200 or 6,000. It makes no business sense. It would be like if the government said to a 20-story hotel, ‘You can operate, but you can only have two guest rooms.’”

But some live music venue operators who are not a part of the pilot program are hopeful some good will come out of it, so long as the city follows through by publishing its findings. 

“I’m interested in the objectives and actionable intelligence that will flow from it,” says Songbyrd Record Cafe and Music House co-founder Joe Lapan. “We’re taking a step toward reengaging with our live music community. Songbyrd welcomes the opportunity to be a continuing part of the exploration and analysis of what safe live music looks like … But, to make it not just a waiver and an actual pilot program, there should be additional data that’s gathered and given out to the nightlife community.” 

City Paper asked Falcicchio about what data the District plans to collect and share. “Similar to other pilots during the pandemic, we remain in contact with operators within the pilot to understand their planning, operations, and pivots,” he writes in an email.

He provides an example. “Back in the spring, we launched the Educational and Academic Retail Store (EARS) pilot. It helped us create the reopen checklist that we provided to businesses and launch the PPE distribution where we tapped the DC Local Supply to provide masks, disinfectant, and hand sanitizer to businesses and nonprofits through BIDs and Main Streets.”