Colorful lights flashing, smoke machines blasting, a crowd of nearly 200 dancing college students shouting at each other over the music — at 10:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 13, Bloomington’s famed Bluebird nightclub looked exactly like what you’d expect from a live music venue where John Mellencamp and John Prine once dominated the stage.
College-aged guys held up bottles of beer and young women jumped up on the railings to have a better view of Hank Ruff, the night’s performer. If they were lucky, the local country star would reach down and touch their hands. At one point, he invited an audience member onstage and challenged him to a shotgun race.
Either because he was too drunk or had been pushed, one man in the crowd fell into the people around him before hitting the ground. Another man at a table of six fell backward, taking his stool with him.
“I am so blacked out right now!” he announced.
Aside from the “Keep masks on & Social Distance” signs hung here and there, there were barely any clues that the Bluebird was operating through something that would’ve been incomprehensible to this same crowd of live music lovers a year ago — a deadly pandemic.
Dozens of people were squeezed into approximately 15 tables placed about three feet apart from each other, the backs of people from neighboring tables just inches away from each other. No temperature checks were administered at the door that night. Almost 100% of the people in attendance squished shoulder to shoulder into just 10% of the floorspace.
All of them were singing, drinking and dancing. None of them were wearing masks.
Three weeks prior on Jan. 19, the Bluebird posted a picture of that week’s lineup on Instagram with the caption:
“As always, socially distanced tables, temp checks at the door, masks required.”
Three days after the Indiana Daily Student filed requests with the Monroe County Health Department for records of health department and Security Pro 24/7 compliance checks of the nightclub, the Bluebird voluntarily shut down Feb. 25. After a year of staying open, they closed to develop a COVID-19 safety plan, said Penny Caudill, Monroe County Health Department administrator.
“As part of our normal follow-up procedure after receiving a complaint, we had conversations with the Bluebird and discussed possible options to increase compliance with the health regulations involving Covid,” Caudill said in an email. “As a result, the Bluebird voluntarily closed to create a stronger compliance plan for their business.”
The nightclub reopened one day later. A new sign was added to the door, reading “STAY AT TABLE NO STANDING.”
The pandemic has presented many live music venue owners, like the Bluebird’s David Kubiak, with a difficult choice: stay open and possibly jeopardize public safety, or close down and possibly go out of business.
When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the United States, local music venues across the country shut down. Large in-person gatherings, like the typical crowds in attendance at live music shows, were no longer advisable per CDC guidelines.
The same went for Monroe County, which had 10,000 total total cases of COVID-19 and 165 deaths as of March 1. Three blocks over from the Bluebird, Blockhouse Bar closed in March to wait out the pandemic. So did its next door neighbor, the Bishop.
And so did the Bluebird — for three months. While other venues have been closed indefinitely for nearly a year, the Bluebird announced its reopening in a June Instagram post and has been holding concerts ever since.
Owner David Kubiak said the venue, which used to hold more than 700 people, has been operating at a limited capacity between 100 and 200 people.
“We’re just trying to keep our doors open,” Kubiak said. “It’s an extremely difficult time for all businesses.”
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Feb. 2 executive order states that businesses such as nightclubs are allowed to stay open but are expected to take protective measures to ensure social distancing and provide sanitation products.
“All patrons must remain seated while consuming food and/or drink or when otherwise remaining on the premises,” Holcomb’s order reads. “Seating must be arranged and maintained so that individuals, households, or parties are spaced at least six (6) feet apart from any other individual, household or party.”
CDC guidelines advise restaurants and bars to have “adequate supplies to support hygiene” available, such as soap, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes. They also recommend these businesses modify their layouts to ensure social distancing, clean their facilities as much as possible, require masks and ensure their ventilation systems are working properly.
Before the closure last week, the COVID-19 policies listed on the Bluebird’s website did seem to align with Holcomb’s order and CDC guidelines — masks were required inside the establishment, and social distancing and hand washing were encouraged. A blurb on the site stated the Bluebird was “following CDC guidelines to keep the building sanitary, safe, distanced and seated.”
But on a mid-February Saturday night, almost a year since the pandemic began, most of these promises were overtly ignored or weakly enforced at the Bluebird. Local musicians and community members who have spoken with the IDS or posted about the Bluebird on social media say they’ve noticed similar COVID-19-safety issues at the venue over the past year.
“Social distancing and wearing face coverings are two vital tools we can use to fight covid transmission,” Penny Caudill said in an email. “Unfortunately, they are also two behaviors that some find easy to forget when visiting local nightlife.”
Caudill said Monroe County has partnered with Security Pro 24/7, a for-hire security services company, to send compliance officers to monitor local bars and restaurants. When those officers find that businesses aren’t complying with health guidelines, she said they work with the business’ management to find ways of reducing COVID-19 spread.
Kubiak told the IDS before the shutdown that the Bluebird had tried its best to administer temperature checks and enforce social distancing, but that it’s been hard to do so for everyone every night. He said the nightclub had conveyed its issues enforcing social distancing with the health department, but Kubiak didn’t indicate that there was any plan to fix the dangerous environment on the dance floor.
Kubiak said the most helpful precaution the Bluebird had taken as of February was the installation of Global Plasma Solutions ionization technology in the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system. The technology works by releasing ions into the airstream, according to the GPS website, and has been found to filter out pathogens.
“We haven’t had any band members or staff test positive,” he said.
The nightclub updated the COVID-19 procedures on its website after the shutdown to include that the Bluebird reserves the right to remove people if they don’t follow the rules. Staff are now enforcing that people stay seated throughout performances, and people are no longer allowed to dance near the stage, according to the update.
Aaron Waltz, director of security at Security Pro 24/7, declined to comment on what his team observed at Friday and Saturday night concerts post-shutdown.
Caudill, however, said the Bluebird’s procedures are now more detailed and staff is working through the plans.
“Reports indicate that Friday night went well,” Caudill said in an email. “Saturday had a few more challenges, but compliance was maintained on both nights.”
Local musician Liam Murphy has performed at the Bluebird dozens of times. He said he isn’t at all surprised by the nightclub’s operations during the pandemic, which he thinks are inappropriate and unsafe.
The 21-year-old Bloomington local and cofounder of Turquoise Mansion, an experimental music collective, said his livelihood, as well as that of his musician friends, depends on performing live.
“My main source of income last year was live music,” Murphy said. “My life has kind of sucked money-wise for almost a year now.”
Even though Murphy depends on the money he makes performing, he said he won’t play live shows at large venues like the Bluebird because of how dangerous it can be.
“When people with COVID-19 cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe they produce respiratory droplets,” the CDC website says. “Infections occur mainly through exposure to respiratory droplets when a person is in close contact with someone who has COVID-19.”
Recent literature and peer-reviewed studies compiled by the National Center for Biotechnology Information have found that the singing and shouting that takes place at crowded live shows can increase spread COVID-19.
“Singing generates aerosols and droplets,” the NCBI found. “A study from Mürbe et al demonstrated increase in particle emission during singing and emphasized the importance of risk management for singing.”
Murphy said seeing other local musicians continue to perform live, knowing how unsafe it can be, has made him feel disconnected from the local music community.
Murphy said local acts like DJ Maddog and Huckleberry Funk are examples of musicians who are handling the pandemic well. He said they haven’t been performing live, and DJ Maddog has been supplementing live music with live streamed performances.
Murphy said the Bluebird shouldn’t be operating because there’s no way to be certain the crowds at their live music shows aren’t contributing to the spread of the virus.
“How can we even know there aren’t outbreaks coming from them?” Murphy said. “People are not wearing masks in there. It’s all over social media.”
Kubiak declined to comment on his reasoning for staying open and said he would explain after the pandemic is over. Murphy said he’s certain the Bluebird cares only about making money.
“Anyone who chooses to play at any bar or venue that is having live music performed during a mass death event is only thinking about money,” Murphy said. “To me, that’s the definition of money being the priority over human lives.”
The Bluebird shutting down for just a day isn’t enough, Murphy said. He doesn’t think they should be open at all until more people are vaccinated.
“The government shit the bed,” said David James, owner of the Blockhouse Bar. “I lean very milkquetoast — it’s a complex issue.”
While the Bluebird continues to put on live shows, venues like James’ will stay shut down. James said the decision to close indefinitely was the best for the safety of his staff and customers, but that the situation is too nuanced to place blame on other business owners. The federal government didn’t provide businesses with the help they needed, he said.
“I’m on the side of CDC guidelines,” James said. “It’s a liability for people to be gathering right now. We’re choosing to do the safe thing by not bringing people together.”
Community members like Murphy, however, think the issue isn’t that the Bluebird is staying open. It’s that it wasn’t trying to do so safely. The pressure for businesses to stay open and profitable is no excuse for bars to ignore health guidelines, Murphy said.
“You can stay afloat and stay open and follow standards,” he said. “If you’re going to do live music, it’s on the venue to do it safely.”
“If you’re going to do live music, it’s on the venue to do it safely.”
— Local musician Liam Murphy
Kubiak declined to comment about the pressures to stay open because of how mixed public opinion currently is.
“Half the people want us to be open and half don’t,” Kubiak said in an email.
Luckily for the Bluebird, it doesn’t seem like their customers are bothered by the nightclub’s handling of the pandemic. Though onlookers might think the nightclub is creating danger for the community by staying open, the audience thinks the Bluebird’s almost nightly live music shows are worth the risk.
“It’s the best bar in town right now, and I love live music,” said an IU student from the same group as the boy who fell over on his stool. “Maybe this is a ‘dumb decision.’ But all of us have antibodies because we’ve all had COVID before.”
Hannah Dailey reported this story through phone interviews with David Kubiak and community members and email conversations with Kathy Hewett and Penny Caudill of the Monroe County Health Department. Scenes from Feb. 13 were observed from the back corner of the Bluebird nightclub, aside from when taking photographs and asking people questions made it necessary to approach others. A mask was worn and social distancing protocols were followed throughout the reporting process.