Starting in August, The Grand Opera House will lay off 19 of its 33 staff members to cope with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The remaining staff will have a 20 percent pay cut, with Executive Director Mark Fields and Managing Director of Programming Steve Bailey taking a 35 percent pay cut.
The Grand will be able to keep its lights on, but will be shuttered for all intents and purposes until a readily available vaccine makes it safe to bring performers and audience members back inside.
Grand management hopes to one day be able to hire back its staff, who officials repeatedly called family members.
“We see this as a short term measure to put a focus on preserving the institution,” said a subdued Mark Fields, who had spent Monday calling employees and telling them the bad news.
“As an organization that takes money from the community in a variety of different ways, whether it’s ticket sales or contributions or corporations or foundations, we couldn’t in good faith continue to operate as if there wasn’t a pandemic, because there is,” Fields said. “So we realized we had to scale back our operations until there is a time we can open safely and financially responsibly. Until then, we just have to reduce our costs.”
No shows for at least 9 months
Board chairman Brian DiSabatino said the Grand does not expect to be able to open for shows for nine months or more.
It’s already has lost $4 million between its shows at The Grand and The Playhouse at Rodney Square, said Fields and DiSabatino. That’s more than half of its annual $7 million-plus budget.
“But the problem is, we don’t know what the end point is,” Fields said. “So that loss is a rolling number. The longer we go without being able to open and sell tickets and restart our programs, that loss would be compounded.”
While The Grand was approved for the first round of the federal Payroll Protection Program, the money ran out in early July, Fields said. That forced the layoffs, he said.
As the city’s most visible arts organization with its historic three-story iron-column front so visible on Market Street, The Grand’s move could have an even bigger chilling effect on the city of Wilmington’s economy. Its shows bring 150,000 to 200,000 people downtown a year, and those people eat, drink and stay in hotels there.
Fields said The Grand has estimated it creates another $12 million in business for Delaware, mostly in Wilmington.
“This is disheartening but not surprising based on the environment we are in,” said Mayor Mike Purzycki. “I am especially concerned that many of the talented staff have been laid off.
“The Grand is an anchor for our downtown and a great economic draw for area restaurants and even other entertainment venues, so this hurts everyone. But, this announcement — which we have to view as a temporary setback — should strengthen our resolve to fight through this dreaded virus so that together, we can bring the Grand back as well as other businesses that are suffering similarly at unprecedented levels.”
Closing down because of COVID-19
When the novel coronavirus appeared in Delaware in March, Gov. John Carney to ordered people to stay at home and shut restaurants, bars and much of retail to try to slow the spread of the virus.
That meant theaters closed. Even with attempts to reopen the economy and allow people to move around, it’s impossible for the Grand — which is preparing to celebrate its 150th anniversary in 2021 — to predict when and how it will be able to safely have enough people inside to support the programming.
Some of The Grand’s scenarios showed that even if it was were permitted a 60 percent capacity, having to space out seats and allow for social distancing meant the best they should hope for was to sell 30 percent of the auditorium. Both The Grand and the Playhouse could only seat about 350 people, Fields said.
“It’s not just that reduced capacity,” he said. “There would be a whole new set of expectations that we would have to undertake in a short time until there is a readily available vaccine to make sure we could ensure the safety of the public.”
That included new equipment, training and consumables such as hand sanitizer, wipes and antibacterial foggers.
DiSabatino pointed out that the Grand’s ushers, called the Show Corps, donate 24,000 hours a year in volunteer time. Many of them are in a high-risk group because they are older, he pointed out. The Grand can’t ask them to come into an unsafe environment, he said.
The Grand has started a new series of outdoor concerts, “Concerts by Car,” in the Frawley Stadium parking lot. Both sold out, bringing in about 220 cars with 500 patrons paying $25 a head for live concerts on July 3 and a July 17. Seated in or near their socially distanced cars, patrons could hear the concert over their car radios and see the band on huge screens set up near the performers
The organization would need to do 500 shows like that and charge each patron $583 each to equal its normal budget.
The Grand usually offers about 90 shows of its own each year. Add in the shows produced by its five resident companies, community users and renters, and the facility sees 120 to 150 shows a year. It also plays host to 300-plus activities such as classes and meeting.
“Live performances are one of the oldest forms of entertainment and watching a live performance is exactly what we all need right now…a distraction from the stress of life around us,” said a statement from The Grand’s Board of Directors. “Unfortunately, because of the situation we find ourselves in, we are unable to provide that relief.”
“As soon as we get through the grief of this,” DiSabatino said, The Grand will begin to focus on how it can open and when it can open.
$2 million to reopen
A vaccine will be a must, DiSabatino and Fields said. So will artists willing to tour and go into a different community every night or every other night.
Even when The Grand is able to open, it is going to need financial support, they said.
“We calculate it’s going to take us $2 million to get open again,” Fields said. “But we’ve gotten to this point because we’ve dipped into our endowment fund. So we would actually have to raise closer to $5 million to be able to approach our position before COVID.”
Asked where that kind of money could come from, DiSabatino pointed out that The Grand has always been a product of the people.
“What sometimes gets lost because it excels at such a high level … people forget we are made by the community for the community,” DiSabatino said.
That money will come a variety of sources, including ticket sales, donations, corporate giving and foundations, Fields said.
“This revival of The Grand is going to require every corner of this community to to galvanize around the idea of lighting this place back up as we move into the post-COVID era in 2021,” DiSabatino said. “It’s going to come from corporations. It’s going to come from small donors. It’s going to come from folks who have already generously agreed to donate their tickets back.
“It’s going to require everybody.”