Richmond event industry faces unemployment, uncertainty ahead of peak season

The Altria Theater box office is temporarily closed and many plays and events have been postponed or canceled. Photo by Jon Mirador

Sagal Ahmed, Contributing Writer

Event workers in the Richmond area are preparing for a summer without concerts, gatherings and social events. Many have been left without work until at least June, when the industry is typically at its busiest.

After an executive order from Gov. Ralph Northam banned gatherings of more than 10 people in Virginia, events were canceled, and VCU alumna Tina Harding said she was left without work. Harding works as an audiovisual technician for meetings, conferences and social events held by national companies.

“Before the social distancing requirements happened, before the closing of business and those mandates, that’s when the events were hit,” Harding said. 

Harding said she filed for unemployment and was approved for 12 weeks, which will last until June. Harding asked not to disclose her workplace as she feared it would break her contract.

“I doubt people will be ready to gather in masses in June,” Harding said. “If they are, that would be great, but if they are not, I pretty much have to find another job.” 

3.8 million people filed for unemployment benefits between April 19-25 nationally, with 74,043 filed in Virginia, according to a release from the Department of Labor. Unemployment figures from the release show more than 30.3 million Americans filed for unemployment in the last six weeks. 

A release from the Bureau of Labor Statistics stated that 459,000 of U.S. jobs lost during March were in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes food service and drinking establishments.

VCU student Kayla Thomas has spent most of her summers working on the boardwalk of Virginia Beach but does not know whether she will have a job this summer due to beach closures during Northam’s stay-at-home order. Thomas has worked at her family’s concession stand since she was in high school.

“As a college student from Virginia Beach, coming home for summer and spending time with my friends at the beach is always fun,” Thomas said. “But this summer, it won’t be the reality.” 

VCU student Kayla Turner works at her parent’s concession stand, Mimi’s Boardwalk Concessions, near the Virginia Beach boardwalk. Photo courtesy of Kayla Turner.

She said that navigating schoolwork and her mental health while social distancing has been a challenge. 

“I feel as though I’ve been uprooted in the middle of learning,” the political science and history double major said.

Thomas said her family is financially stable during these times despite closures at Virginia Beach.

“I am lucky enough to have my parents’ financial support,” Thomas said. “My mom works from home, and my dad is a contractor.”

Local venues, such as Altria Theater, have closed their doors to the public and postponed shows until after June 10.

Tim Miller, sales and marketing director at ASM Global, which manages the Altria Theater, said the theater is closed to the public for plays, musicals and concerts, as well as weddings and corporate events.  

The company has some employees working on facility projects, general maintenance and previously scheduled projects that were either paid for or pending. This includes fresh paint, upgraded HVAC systems, and repairs to elevators and other systems, Miller said.

Miller said half of Altria’s 35 full-time employees have been furloughed, including workers in the box office, marketing, production, food and beverage and administration departments. Part-time and event workers, like contractors, have been put to the side until events can happen again. 

Altria’s marketing department is focusing on social media and digital marketing, Miller said.

“We had a very busy spring and summer schedule including the conclusion of the Broadway in Richmond season and numerous large corporate events,” Miller said. “Many productions are being rescheduled for the fall, but some, like ‘Wicked,’ were unable to find new dates and had to be canceled.” 

A billboard sign at the Altria Theater reads, “Stay safe & healthy, RVA,” on March 21. Photo by Jon Mirador

Plays and events including “Boogie Wonderland,” the “75th Annual Book and Author Event” and an Alice Cooper concert have also been canceled. 

According to Altria’s website, a screening of “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” with an accompanying performance by the Richmond Symphony was rescheduled for June 19. Comedian Chris Tucker was rescheduled for July 24, and “Celtic Women Celebration: the 15th Anniversary Tour” was moved to March 11, 2021.

Other plays and musicals were postponed until later in the year, including “Baby Shark Live” on Oct. 1, “Fiddler On The Roof” on Oct. 6-11, and “The Band’s Visit” on Dec. 8-13. All other events are occuring on their original date.

Other entertainment venues in the Richmond area have followed a similar plan to reschedule or cancel events prior to June 10, the last day of Northam’s stay-at-home order. Concerts at Innsbrook After Hours scheduled prior June 10 have been postponed, and Big Field Day, on June 23, has been canceled.

Billy Currington, who was originally scheduled for May 29, has been rescheduled for Sept. 5. The Aaron Lewis concert is still scheduled to be held on June 24.  Any events that were already scheduled after June 10 are still going to happen, according to Innsbrook’s website.  

Friday Cheers, an eight-week summer concert series on Brown’s Island presented by Venture Richmond, canceled Friday Cheers events in May and June. 

2020 season pass holders can use their passess for the rescheduled Billy Strings concert on August 26. According to its website, Friday Cheers is offering a 50% discount on next year’s passes to 2020 season pass holders. Those who have purchased Friday Cheers tickets can request a refund through TicketsToBuy.com or by emailing support@ticketstobuy.com.

This article was updated to correct the number of Altria Theater’s furloughed workers.

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