Five Flags among entertainment venues that don’t expect quick return to normalcy

H.R. Cook

The leader of a major live-entertainment venue in Dubuque predicted Monday that it could be a full year before the industry returns to normalcy.

Five Flags Center General Manager H.R. Cook said many in the industry believe it will be the fall of 2021 before things “open up” in the business. Cook’s comments were delivered during a virtual meeting of the Dubuque Five Flags Civic Center Commission.

“The industry is really banking on science and a vaccine that will allow people to safely come back to live events,” Cook said. “It is not a good time to be in our industry, but when it opens up, we believe it will be a better industry to be in.”

Although COVID-19 will impact the industry for the foreseeable future, Five Flags is open for business and gearing up for multiple events that will bring modest crowds to the venue.

The DockDogs World Championships will be held this week, and a handful of concerts still are slated to take place in the remaining months of 2020.

The vast space at Five Flags Center offers an advantage over many other local venues. Cook on Monday explained that events previously booked for Five Flags Theater, an adjoining facility with a relatively small capacity, can be shifted into the larger Five Flags event space, which offers room for thousands and allows for proper social distancing.

In the months ahead, Five Flags also is slated to host multiple sporting events, including wrestling tournaments. In some scenarios, sporting events that were scheduled to take place in states with more rigid COVID-19 regulations are looking at Iowa and taking advantage of the state’s looser guidelines.

“We are not busting at the seams like we used to and how we expect it to be in the years down the road,” said Cook. “But the events that we have coming up will keep us busy, keep the doors open and keep everybody employed. And we hope they will fill up the hotels and restaurants downtown and help them out, too.”

In addition to government restrictions and changes to consumer demand, Cook told commission members that there also are far fewer options this year when it comes to booking talent.

“There are very few touring acts out there,” he said. “A lot of the groups have come off the road, and they are just waiting things out. Those who are touring are far more expensive. They know they can demand more money because no one else is playing now.”

Cook emphasized that Five Flags continues to take the virus seriously and shared with commission members a series of health-related policies that were created in conjunction with ASM Global, which manages operations at the city-owned arena and theater.

This includes a mandate for everyone in the venue to wear face masks, with the exception of when a patron is within their seat and eating or drinking. Policies also outline requirements concerning hand sanitizer stations and how frequently touched surfaces must be cleaned.

Cook noted that the venue is taking steps to ensure safety at concession stands, such as shifting from soda machines to bottled beverages and encouraging the sale of pre-packaged food items when possible.

Five Flags Center is far from the only entertainment venue in Dubuque that has suffered during the pandemic.

At Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque, the comedic performances, concerts and other shows that typically populate Mississippi Moon Bar have been on pause since March.

“We are very mindful of public health,” said General Manager and Vice President Wendy Runde. “Our area has been in and out of the red zone, and (COVID-19) cases have been high and continue to be high. (Having a live show) doesn’t seem like the right thing to do at this time.”

Runde also noted that the Mississippi Moon Bar is a relatively small venue. Unlike Five Flags, it would be complicated to schedule a show and space out patrons.

“The opportunity to socially distance in a venue that size is very limited,” she said.

Diamond Jo has canceled shows through the remainder of 2020, and Runde said it is uncertain if and when such shows would return in 2021.

“The beginning of the cold and flu season only complicates matters,” she said. “Like the airlines and a lot of businesses in the hospitality market, it is a wait-and-see approach.”

Q Casino and Hotel also has canceled events due to COVID-19. Officials declined to speak with the Telegraph Herald for this story.