Mike Estabrooks wipes down the glossy oak bar at Irene's Pub preparing to welcome patrons for a night of live music. Posters announcing upcoming acts line the walls, and the stage is being cleared to make room for a drum kit and amps.
A decade ago, Estabrooks started a job in the kitchen of the venerable watering hole in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood, just north of Lansdowne Park, and gradually worked his way up to tending bar, and then managing the pub. Last July he bought the pub in the midst of one of the most challenging periods the music industry has ever faced.
While some live music venues folded, or clung to life during the past two years of shutdowns and restrictions, Estabrooks says he remained optimistic.
"Longstanding regulars and musicians, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork during the pandemic and supported us," said Estabrooks. "It showed me that we could make it out of the pandemic and continue to operate and be successful."
Music venues can reach capacity, but no dancing
Capacity limits were lifted by the Ontario government on Oct. 25 for live music venues, where for the most part patrons remain seated, and they must be fully vaccinated. Those who leave their seats must wear masks, and although standing is permitted, dancing is not allowed.
On Wednesday, the province announced it will continue to impose capacity limits in higher-risk settings such as nightclubs and event spaces where there is dancing. Besides the dance floor, those rules won't change how local bars and live music venues operate.
Erin Benjamin, CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association, says her group worked with the government to distinguish between venues where live music is the primary activity and nightclubs — where the main activity is dancing and mingling.
But she admits it's tricky for venue owners to keep track of the constantly changing regulations.
"Rules aren't clear and the regulations are so dense," Benjamin said.
At Irene's they've decided to take it slow, and will not welcome pre-pandemic-sized crowds to the pub for the foreseeable future.
"I mean, two weeks ago we had Plexiglas barriers between every table. We had social distancing, our staff was enforcing all these rules," said Estabrooks.
It would be "unmanageable" to suddenly welcome a capacity crowd of 150 people packed into the pub space, he said.
"I think we are through the worst of this pandemic but it is a marathon and not a sprint. If erring on the side of caution saves us from heading into a possible lockdown situation in the future, I am all for it." said Estabrooks.
New world 'goes against' idea of hospitality
Estabrooks says the pandemic has changed how servers interact with customers. Not only is his staff responsible for getting food and beverages to the table, the onus is on them to police a mask policy, check for proof of vaccination, and contract tracing.
"It goes against everything, all my knowledge of hospitality, instead of welcoming [patrons] in you start shaking them down asking to see their I.D." he said.
Scott May, owner of Bar Robo in downtown Ottawa, says he believes audiences are eager to experience live music once again, but many music lovers are "still hesitant to come out of their pandemic hibernation."
He says it could take months or even a year before local venues recover from the "dire" financial beating they took during the pandemic.
"We lost the number of live music venues and there are several that are really teetering on the brink of closure right now," said May, with losses forcing club owners to take out bank loans to stay afloat.
"I think in six months, we'll have a better idea as to whether we're going to be able to survive all of this new debt load."
Scott says while the responsibility of regulating safety rules has been put on the shoulders of club owners and staff, the city has a greater role to play to insure that everyone is on the same page.
"Bylaw enforcement officers need to visit clubs and bars that are expressly ignoring capacity, masking, and dancing rules, so as to make legitimate these rules." said May.
Vaccine passport helps venue
At Live on Elgin, the implementation of the vaccine passport has helped patrons feel safer about returning to clubs, according to owner Jon Evenchick.
"They're very polite and understanding with us that things take a little longer to get through the door-entrance process," said Evenchick.
"Back when we were just doing table reservations and very limited capacity, every night there was somebody pushing your buttons and testing the boundaries of what they could get away with, with the restrictions. It felt like babysitting."
Earlier this autumn, a consortium of local businesses rallied to keep the Rainbow Bistro from closing its doors after 37 years as a musical fixture in the ByWard Market.
Owner Danny Sivyer says even with limits on audience members removed, he still only serves half the number of patrons he saw before the pandemic.
"I feel great about the restrictions being lifted, we just need customers to feel the same way," said Sivyer. "It will take time to get people used to the idea, to feel comfortable again."