Nightlife Vet Morgan Deane On The Survival Of Indie Venues, Vaccine Passports & The Return Of Events

by Stephanie Maida · June 9, 2021

    Since March 2020, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over New York, threatening the cultural and social landscape that makes up the fabric of the city. If the year that followed was rough on the patrons kept away from their favorite spots, one could only imagine how hard it was on the independent owners and operators forced to navigate their businesses through lockdown with hardly any support.

    With rapidly changing health and safety guidelines, Morgan Deane, along with the New York Independent Venue Association, made it her mission to help the city's beloved indie venues keep up.

    Since the early days of the pandemic, the nightlife veteran, who also helms Lasher Louis Productions and 508 Events, has worked to provide resources for small nightlife venues to stay up-to-date on state and city rules, best practices, and safety guidelines. As the chair of NYIVA's Reopening Task Force, Deane has launched "The Guide," a free, comprehensive instruction manual for independent venues to safely reopen.

    Now that vaccinations are up and COVID numbers are down, restrictions are finally relaxing and nightlife's "new normal" is beginning to look and feel like, well, the "old normal" once again. With in-person events making their way back onto our social calendars, we caught up with Deane to look ahead at what we can expect and what work still needs to be done.

    What prompted you to get involved with the New York Independent Venue Association (NYIVA) and first launch "The Guide"?
    Early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I realized that independent venues were at a significant disadvantage for surviving a shutdown without the access to robust operational resources compared to venues that are owned by larger companies. Early on there wasn't much for festival directors or event producers like myself to do. I knew nobody was coming to save our industry so I figured I might as well apply my skills to try to help save it instead of just freaking out in my apartment and waking up at 3am to try to get a FreshDirect slot. The original guide was an open source operational document specifically tailored for independent venues globally. The information could be used by venues around the world to help them prepare and advocate for an eventual safe reopening in their own localities in a way that venues with corporate backing might be able to do. It was from this need that the original guide was born in the Spring of 2020.

    I linked up with NYIVA soon after that. Jen Lyon, the co-chair of NYIVA and I have existed in the same orbit for well over 15 years but in the early days of the pandemic it was actually our mutual friend and my fairy godmother Benny Soto who pushed us together. I just started hanging out in NYIVA calls and ferrying information between the other associations and operators I was talking to, sort of a living version of the early Guide. We were sharing best practices from Japan, Europe, Latin America along with intel from my relationships at larger, more corporate operators and government officials. Eventually, that work with NYIVA evolved into me chairing the NYIVA Reopening Task Force and working closely with the State on behalf of membership. New York was opening more slowly than other places then and is well known to have a very strict Department of Health so it seemed like repositioning The Guide as a tool for operations through the paradigm of the NYS specific policies made the most sense. The new version of The Guide helps distill the NYS guidelines for venues in the State to understand and also still help others outside the State to see what the rules are in one of the strictest areas in the US. 

    What are some of the struggles indie venues are facing even in light of the most recent reopening steps in the city and state? What will they need to overcome them?
    Mostly it's just understanding the quickly changing directives from the state, the federal government and the CDC. I feel very strongly that The Guide goes a long way to support operators through those challenges. 

    How do so-called "vaccine passports," and things like NY's Excelsior Pass factor into the reopening efforts?
    The Excelsior pass is a good tool and useful for venues seeking to expedite entry. Most venues are also accepting CDC cards. SOME venues are accepting photos of them or emails from health providers but that’s at the discretion of the venue."... stroke="none" stroke-width="1" fill="none" fill-rule="evenodd">
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    How do you see live events changing in the immediate future, in regards to both attendee experience and from a behind-the-scenes perspective?
    For fully vaccinated people and audiences, their experience will be pretty close to the before times. For unvaccinated folks they can expect to continue to distance and mask for a while.

    The behind the scenes logistics are much more challenging. Operators have had to scramble around a lot to adjust to the quickly changing guidelines and there is absolutely some operator fatigue there. Additionally, venues are engaging in much more robust staff training and of course the obvious need for enhanced cleaning measures. Not to mention, being prepared for the pushback from patrons who aren’t interested in complying with the reopening rules. Kindness and patience is critical right now. 

    Are you optimistic about the future of NYC's nightlife and culture scene?
    I am! I’ve been working in the NYC scene for 20 years as both a promoter and an operator. What I’ve seen from my fellows in terms of the collaboration between folks who are traditionally competitors has been really moving. The industry has spent the last 15 months sharing best practices, supporting each other and collaborating on complicated grant applications, being so transparent about their struggles and refocusing on local scenes and talent. I think the landscape we will see emerging from this moment will be one filled with more empathy and respect for one another and the scene from folks on the operational side. I hope this will translate into more thoughtful guest experiences as well. 

    [Photo via Unsplash]