2021 | Entertainment & Events

As county reopens, event venues hope for return to normal

Businesses will watch how comfortable public is with large gatherings

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Strathmore in North Bethesda is one of the county's large event venues scheduled to begin hosting events this weekend.

File photo

Large event venues — for weddings, conferences, theater, live music and other occasions  — are happy to see Montgomery County’s COVID-19 restrictions lifted. Now, they’re waiting to see how comfortable the public is with attending larger gatherings.

Montgomery County entered the third and final phase of its reopening phase Friday at 6 a.m., two weeks after 50 percent of the population received a final dose of a coronavirus vaccine, the threshold the county set. Businesses countywide can resume normal operations, but mask wearing will still be required on public transportation, in county buildings, in schools and in health care settings.

Also, businesses can decide whether to require masks inside.

Allie Williams, CEO of the Greater Bethesda Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses in the hospitality industry, including those that host large events, are excited to reopen at up to full capacity.

Several have started to book events beginning as early as June, he said.

Businesses are encouraged to take safety precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Williams said. But he thinks most can handle that, and the public will likely determine how busy certain venues are in the weeks ahead.

“I’m sure there’s a hurdle there, because it’s not a trust thing with the vendor or the establishment,” Williams said. “It is, they’re

going to invite 200 people and only 60 people are coming, and situations like that.”

Ronnie Kingsley, owner of Milton Ridge — a wedding venue in Clarksburg — said he’s seen an increase in inquiries about space and events since March, but some are still uneasy about booking weddings or events.

Milton Ridge has hosted some small events of 10 to 25 people, but that doesn’t compare to events with about 125 people, he said. 

“People are nervous, and I definitely think it’s holding some back. … Couples are doing a ‘wait and see what happens,’” Kingsley said.

Nearby, Lauren Huyser, owner of Comus Farm Events in Dickerson, is preparing to open for large events. She’s just starting the business but said there has been great interest the past few weeks.

“We have had people call in the last week, asking for events of 200-plus people. … I don’t think there’s as much hesitancy now, and people are trying to get back to normal,” Huyser said.

Businesses, as private entities, can set their own restrictions or rules during those events.

Joshua Ford, director of marketing and communications at Olney Theatre Center, said outdoor shows have been planned for July, with a tentative target of hosting inside performances by late September.

Olney Threatre is lucky to have 14 acres and an outdoor stage, Ford said. It is waiting to see how successful the outdoor programs are, before determining dates for shows in the fall and beyond.

“I think there are a lot of people who are very, very eager to come back and there would be a full house … and there are others who are taking a more cautious approach,” Ford said. 

It’s a good sign for the whole theater industry that Broadway has announced it is reopening in New York City in September, he said.

“Right now, people know that things are changing quickly, to say the least,” Ford said. “And that, what the situation is today isn’t necessarily what it will be in a couple weeks … but I think we’ve turned the corner on people being more optimistic.”

Some venues are scheduled to hold events this weekend, including Strathmore in North Bethesda. An outdoor summer series will begin there Sunday with a performance by noted jazz artist Wynton Marsalis on Sunday at Strathmore’s patio stage.

No matter how businesses react, it will be important for residents and event-goers to treat each other with respect, depending on their comfort level, owners said.

Rockville Mayor Bridget Donnell Newton echoed that idea.

Some people might want to wear masks more often, Newton said. Others might not be able to get the vaccination for various health reasons, so they might need to be careful, especially near large crowds, she added.

“While we are all excited to get to whatever normal is going to be, people have to do it at their own comfort level. … I want to run, but I’m going to be at a walking pace to make sure the city is doing everything it can to keep people safe,” Newton said.

The county entered the second phase on May 17, when 60% of the county’s population had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. Indoor event capacity was increased to 250 people, outdoor gathering limits were lifted, and religious establishments and most businesses increased from 50% to 75% capacity, among other changes.

County officials entered the first phase on April 27, when 50% of the population had received at least a single dose of a vaccine.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com