Israeli Club Owners, Undeterred by Coronavirus 'Scaremongering,' Eager to Reopen

Performers and venue owners are impatient to go back to work, but fears remain that the audience won’t show up due to the coronavirus scare

Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut
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Before the pandemic: A death metal concert at the Barby club, Tel Aviv.
Before the pandemic: A death metal concert at the Barby club, Tel Aviv.Credit: Nir Kafri
Aya Chajut
Aya Chajut

“The shows are beginning to fill up. Despite the attempts of scaremongering with the imaginary virus the public is voting with its feet. On the 18th of the month we’re opening, period.” The speaker is Shaul Mizrachi, owner of the influential Barby club in south Tel Aviv, and the first Israeli club boss to announce his intention of reopening his business as soon as possible.

I expect the entire Israeli economy to open up on June 14, without restrictions. It’s unthinkable that the beaches and the streets are filled with people while businesses remain closed,” he tells Haaretz.

Singer Marina Maximilian performing in 2018.Credit: Ilanit Cohen

His frustration is understandable. Last week Israel's government announced that restaurants and bars, which remained locked and deserted throughout the country in recent months due to the coronavirus lockdown, will finally be able to reopen this week, beginning on May 27. But nightclubs and theaters are forced to wait a little longer before the music comes back.

Some are mentioning June 14 as the date when they will finally be able to open their businesses, according to a promise from the Culture Ministry. But owners are still having trouble understanding how they will be able to resume activity.

Atcha Bar at the Yellow Submarine music center, 2011.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Mizrachi says that the past months have cost him millions, mainly because of performers who were supposed to arrive from abroad. He feels hurt by the decisions made by the government, which didn’t pay clubs any compensation. He explains that if the restrictions are lifted on businesses and other public spaces, he will insist on opening Barby: “I’m no longer afraid of anything. If there aren’t new restrictions for the entire country, I’m opening [the club], even if they arrest me. Cafes have unions, restaurants in Tel Aviv have [Mayor Ron] Huldai who helps them – and there’s no plan at all for the clubs as yet.”

A different economic model

According to the most recent declarations by outgoing Culture Minister Miri Regev, the directive for entertainment venues will be to have people sit with two empty seats between them, and occupancy will depend on the size of the space. These conditions are less suited to clubs, which don’t have seats like theaters. Mizrachi sees no reason to restrict the conditions for selling tickets when there is no restriction in the street or on the beaches.

But other clubs are starting to think about different solutions. Atcha Bar, the director of the Yellow Submarine music center and venue in Jerusalem, wants a club with performances to be treated the same way as a bar or a restaurant. Recently Yellow Submarine launched a series of online concerts called “In Light of the Directives.”

The band Wolfmother performs at the Barby club in Tel Aviv, July 2019.Credit: Orit Pnini

Bar has yet to start selling tickets for the day after, but he hasn’t canceled the shows already scheduled for June. Now he hopes that his first show in June, which was scheduled before the coronavirus crisis, will go on as planned: a standup performance by Assi Cohen.

Bar is not overly concerned about losses because the Yellow Submarine’s economic model is based on a division of revenues between the club and the artist. For now, he intends to continue with the online shows; once performances are allowed, he will exchange some of each show’s internet tickets for on-site tickets, and will still broadcast the show online for all the other ticket buyers.

The Berale club in Lehavot Haviva, a kibbutz in northern Israel, wants to wait a little longer. It’s planning its first performances for the beginning of July. “The directives change every day,” says Dudi Goder, Berale’s owner. “As of this moment 50 or 100 people are allowed in an open area, but we’re a closed club. We don’t really know what to expect. But we do know that the artists are dying to perform and we’re dying to have them perform. What isn’t clear to us is whether the audience will come, because although people really want to go out, they’re also very afraid.

“What the artists are planning to do at the moment is not to come with a full crew. For example, singer Marina Maximilian, who is about to perform here, will go onstage with two instrumentalists instead of the six she usually appears with. The performances will be more limited, so that at least they can start earning a living again.”

The musician Dudu Tassa performing, February 2019.Credit: Orit Pnini

Another problem facing all the club owners is that the period of unpaid leave given by the state was only for three months, and will be up in mid-June. It will be hard to keep workers who aren’t earning money. “This period is killing us financially,” explains Goder. “I paid the artists down to the last agora and we returned 300,000 shekels to ticket buyers for tickets bought in advance. I reached an arrangement with all the other suppliers – the internet, the permanent employees, the food suppliers and the security companies. They all showed some consideration.”

As part of the sense of solidarity, in addition to the shows for which tickets will be sold in July, Berale is allowing performers who had a lot of difficulty during the recent period to perform there free of charge and before the number of people of their choosing. “We have requests mainly from second-tier artists, and we said that as long as it meets the requirements of the law we’ll give them the stage, the lighting and the sound, but we’re not opening the kitchen or the bar.

“That’s our small contribution to the performers, and mainly to those who accompany them. After all, every well-known performer has another three to six instrumentalists or sound people and show directors. We want them to resume work and we’re contributing the little we can. And yes, it’s also so they’ll remember us here on the country’s periphery. It’s a matter of advertising the place and fostering the connection with the performers and the audience,” admits Goder.

In any case, says Goder, there are many fears about reopening. “Organizing to finalize the performances is complicated and we want to be sure that we can fill them. Because if we fill only 200 places of the 330 we have here, it would be a big loss. Everyone is afraid of the second wave [of the coronavirus] and there’s also a fear that the audience won’t come. Like with schools, where not everyone sent their children. Adults will be afraid to be in a closed place.

“We’ll start selling tickets in early June and then we’ll also publicize the performance schedule. The artists really want to perform, and need to perform. It’s also important to remember that part of our income comes from the sale of food, and it’s not clear what will happen with that. It will probably take at least three to four months before things really begin to get back to normal.”