Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson has ordered a Fort Smith music venue not to go ahead with a planned concert this week in what would be America’s first show since stay-at-home guidelines began for most of the country two months ago. The governor’s department of health issued a cease-and-desist against TempleLive on Wednesday, though the venue has yet to respond to the order.
The 1,100-person theater is set to host blues-rock singer Travis McCready under strict social-distancing protocols this Friday — three days before Arkansas is allowing indoor gatherings of 50 people or fewer to resume. Should the show sell out, TempleLive will host 229 attendees.
“By your proposed actions, you are in violation of the Arkansas public health code,” The state’s secretary of health, Nathaniel Smith, wrote to TempleLive organizers. “Those rules authorize me, as secretary of health and director of the Arkansas department of health, to order you to cease and desist the conduct described above. Your failure to comply with this order and postpone your event to be in compliance with the health directives will result in a violation of the Arkansas public health code.”
“We issued the cease-and-desist order and we expect the law to be complied with,” Hutchinson said Wednesday at a press conference, promising “some consequences” if the venue ignored the order. “Our enforcement capacity can utilize local law enforcement, because this is an enforceable order that we have in place. And there could be other remedies as well.”
Hutchinson didn’t elaborate on what efforts the state may take to enforce the cease-and-desist, instead emphasizing the common sense of the public. “I would think that the patrons, when they know that the concert should not happen under Department of Health guidelines, that they’d use good judgment and not attend,” he said.
“I would expect the concert promoter to cancel the event since it is in violation of the cease and desist order issued by our Department of Health,” Hutchison said in a new statement to Rolling Stone Wednesday afternoon. “We would welcome the concert under different circumstances, but the health and safety of music patrons is most important. Arkansas is synonymous with music whether it is the Delta blues; Ozark folk music; or the sound of artists from Glen Campbell to Johnny Cash. We can’t wait for the music to echo through the hills again.”
“[Last week], I was very optimistic that the Arkansas Department of Health and the governor were going to see that everything that we were doing should be admissible to happen,” TempleLive owner Mike Brown tells Rolling Stone. “Today, I’m awaiting legal advice. The legal team is reading through the [cease-and-desist] to decipher exactly what our options are.”
While most indoor venues like TempleLive aren’t allowed to reopen until May 18th under Arkansas’ guidelines, churches and places of worship were free to hold services without any capacity restrictions as of May 4th. Smith said there is a distinct difference between the two.
“When we developed each of these directives, we had in mind the particular groups that are involved in those directives,” he said during Wednesday’s press conference. “Obviously, a place of worship is different than a concert hall. There are some similarities but also some significant differences, especially that with this event, they are expecting people from a number of different states — people who normally wouldn’t come in contact with each other. So that increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.”
“What keeps coming back to me is Eric Stratton’s speech in Animal House: Isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? [Laughs] It’s hard to believe there’s such hypocrisy — regardless of what the directive is — that religious institutions can have all these people in place,” Brown says. “[The churches] aren’t contact tracing and I can contact trace everybody that comes into this building through Ticketmaster.
“If we do have a show and the governor does what he says, he’s going to send armed state police here to stop us. And that’s in America,” he adds. “It really feels like our rights are being trampled on and we’re just not being treated fairly. The government has the upper hand in their ability to enforce things through what is perceived law. It’s just unfortunate.”
Last week, the venue operator and concert promoter laid out his safety precautions to Rolling Stone, which include disinfecting the venue with fog, limiting bathroom capacity, and, most visibly, cordoning off sections of seats to maintain social distancing. “We went in and measured off every direction we can possibly see, and mapped it out so everybody is six feet from each other,” he said.
But Hutchinson says TempleLive’s safety precautions don’t matter if the concert still falls outside of the state’s timeline. “That was based upon public health guidance,” Hutchinson said. “Like I said yesterday, if we gave direction, as we did for restaurants to serve inside dining on May 11th, you don’t expect people to open up before that. I think you’d be looking at us with, ‘What’s this about?’ if you don’t enforce it. The fundamental point is they knew in advance that this is the target date and they’ve proceeded on with this in violation of the directive.”
A rep for the Arkansas Department of Health did not return a request for comment, but a spokesperson for Fort Smith Mayor George McGill said the city would follow any directive from state officials.
“Once Governor Hutchinson said that he would be issuing the cease and desist order, we are completely in line with his plan and his thinking and we will move forward as we are directed from the governor’s office,” the mayor’s spokesperson, Jurena Storm, tells Rolling Stone. “Our stance has not changed …. If the Arkansas Department of Health has said that this is the right way for us to maintain the safety and wellbeing of our residents, then that’s what we will do.”
Lauren Brown is a Tulsa, OK musician set to open for McCready at both Friday’s show and a planned Saturday show at the Tall Pines Distillery in Noel, MO. “I’m excited,” she tells Rolling Stone. “I’d like to see that we can get some people in this room that can realize it’s not an end-all, be-all. We’re not stuck in our homes forever. We can get out and see people from a distance and still be safe and hear some live music and get some joy into our days.”
While Brown says he is still weighing his options, he laid out what police action may look like should it reach that point. “I guess an episode of Cops or Tiananmen Square in China,” he says. “We’re a fine member of this community. We just spent a multi-million investment in a great market that needed it. It’s such an opportunity for the state of Arkansas — with all of the light that has shined on this event — to really have a great showing and I think that politics is getting in the way.”
“It’d be neat to be a part of something bigger than myself, just putting the world back in motion and getting these jobs back that people are missing,” Brown says. “I’d love for this to set wheels in motion that we can start rolling again.”