It’s not so much a grand re-opening as it is a gradual, even tentative testing of the waters. This weekend, Rupp Arena will present its first concert in 10 months. But like every other public event in the post COVID-19 world, its entire design will be different from anything the facility has presented. A different show for a different time, if you will.
The performance is the 98.1 The Bull-sponsored Acoustic Concert, a sampler of seven country music performances headlined by Brantley Gilbert that was originally scheduled for December. The show will have artists performing in stripped down acoustic settings, much like the yearly Acoustic Jam shows at the Lexington Opera House.
But the real changes are in the precautions that surround every other element of the show, from ticket sales to seating to essential social distancing and masking rules. The changes might seem daunting to patrons at first. But getting to present any kind of concert at all in a COVID climate has been an Olympian task for those at Rupp.
“This is not ‘one phone call and up we go,’” said Carl Hall, director of arena management at Rupp. “There has been a lot of work by a lot of people to get this thing put together. I’ve got a 60-page reopening manual that we submitted with a lot of research from other facilities, industry professionals, work guidelines … you can’t imagine what it took to put this thing together.”
“A lot of information comes out to the ticket buyers well in advance of the event. Then there is enforcement upon the day of the event and throughout the event itself. As you know, football games did similar things with face masks and monitoring where people sit. When you move an event inside, it becomes a little more of a test. Things are more stringent in that if somebody doesn’t have their face mask, they get one warning and then will be asked to leave.”
While this weekend will be Rupp’s first go at presenting a concert with distancing and making regulations, it will not be the arena’s first pandemic-era event. Rupp has already hosted six University of Kentucky basketball games and has found attendees accepting the changes.
“The general public is complying,” Hall said. “From what we see, they are doing extremely well with the criteria that’s been placed before them. Our staff has been monitoring and no one has been ejected for not wearing a face mask. Nobody’s been defiant. It’s been going very well.”
The first and most noticeable difference about this weekend’s show will be its size. As with the basketball games, attendance has been downsized to 15% of the arena’s capacity. That translates into about 2,800 seats out of the arena’s usual audience of 21,000.
“That’s not 2,800 people sitting next to each other in the lower arena, either. That’s 2,800 people equally spaced. Tickets are sold in blocks of two or four tickets to a block. Each block is a minimum of six feet away from any other block, either left or right, in front or behind. So we are 10 rows into the upper arena all the way around at 2,800 people. When you come into the event and you sit down, it’s going to look very different.”
Rupp was ready to present concerts a month ago after clearing a major hurdle. Tickets for the Acoustic Concert and a performance by rap group Three 6 Mafia were already on sale when Gov. Andy Beshear issued an ordinance in mid-November that shut down indoor service at bars and restaurants through Dec. 13, which would have included the originally scheduled show dates for both concerts.
“When that press conference was held, I sat here at the edge of my seat,” Hall said. “You could go through all the offices and hear people. With every mandate, you heard a moan. You heard a sigh. The very last question during a Q and A at the end asked, ‘Does this impact the events at Rupp Arena and the Yum Center (in Louisville)?’ And the governor said, ‘No.’ The whole staff here cheered. It was a great relief, a great excitement. But at the same time, there was a great concern.”
The concern was justified. While the shows could go on, concessions sold inside the arena were considered part of the ordinance and were halted. That was enough to persuade promoters of the two concerts to postpone until this weekend. The Three 6 Mafia performance has since been canceled entirely.
Though not a sellout as of yet, the majority of the 2,800 tickets for the Acoustic Concert have already been sold. While there are no other concert events currently booked at Rupp until July, Hall said he would not be surprised if the arena is approached about presenting other smaller-scale shows.
“I don’t think we’ll be back up to our pre-COVID normalcy for another six or eight months. So it will be a year and a half that we’ve dealt with this. Nobody would have ever imagined this kind of scenario. Never.”
If you go: Acoustic Concert featuring Brantley Gilbert
Also performing: Russell Dickerson, Riley Green, Dylan Scott, Niko Moon, Runaway June and Matt Stell
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 15
Where: Rupp Arena
Tickets: $54-$215 (sold in groups for two to six patrons; some single seats are available)
Online: rupparena.com, ticketmaster.com
COVID concert guidelines
▪ Entry will be on the west side of the arena.
▪ Tickets are mobile only. All ticket sales are conducted online only at Ticketmaster.com. No paper tickets will be used. Patrons should be sure to have a fully charged phone for presenting their mobile ticket upon entry.
▪ Health screening questions and temperature checks will be required before entry.
▪ Patrons will be monitored in the seating area specified by their tickets to ensure social distancing.
▪ Face masks will be required at all times throughout the arena except when a patron is actively eating or drinking in their designated seat.
▪ Stickers will be installed on the ground designating socially distanced spacing for patrons as they line up for entry or at the concessions stands.
▪ Concession stands will encourage cashless transactions.
▪ Patrons may only have one clear bag (no larger than 12”x 12”x 6”) or one small clutch purse (no larger than 4”x 4”x 1”) for their personal items. All bags and items will be searched. Patrons are strongly encouraged to leave unnecessary items at home.
▪ Gatherings of more than eight people are prohibited on the concourse and will be strictly monitored by event staff.
▪ Venue staff will be providing enhanced sanitation procedures before and during the event.