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Downtown Tucson's heartbeat goes silent as venues hit pause over virus worries

Downtown Tucson's heartbeat goes silent as venues hit pause over virus worries

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series

Club Congress music director David Slutes was cautiously optimistic Friday morning that he could maintain some sense of normalcy amid the chaotic COVID-19 storm.

But by the afternoon, Slutes joined his Congress Street colleagues and announced that Club Congress, the venue he has worked tirelessly for years to make a central point for downtown nightlife, was suspending live shows at least through month’s end.

“It’s horrific. I’ve lived my life for this,” he said Friday afternoon, moments before making the official announcement from his office at the Hotel Congress, 311 E. Congress St. “Being a part of the cultural community, it’s beyond heartbreaking. We’re in the emergency room right now trying to save the patient.”

It was a sudden turn for Tucson as a tumultuous week closed with near hourly announcements of show cancellations and temporary venue closures.

On Congress Street, the heartbeat of downtown’s usually vibrant nightlife, the marquees at Fox Tucson Theatre and the Rialto Theatre — the anchors of Congress — will go proverbially dark. The Fox, 17 W. Congress, was the first to pull the plug, announcing on Thursday that it would suspend live shows for three weeks; in all, it postponed 10 shows, including this weekend’s Irish band Atlan.

Tucson Symphony Orchestra announced Thursday night that it was cancelling its concerts through March, including performances this weekend at Tucson Music Hall downtown. The decision was in reaction to Tucson Mayor Regina Romero’s decision Thursday afternoon to not issue city permits for gatherings of 50 or more.

Rialto Theatre general manager Curtis McCrary said he also took his cue in part from Romero when he decided to suspend concerts at the Rialto, 318 E. Congress, and its sister venue 191 Toole on East Toole Avenue. McCrary, who made it official Friday afternoon, said he was on the Thursday afternoon conference call with Romero and it “just made it clear that we needed to shut it down as soon as possible.”

“I’m hopeful that taking these steps will help slow it and get to a point where it decreases in intensity and we don’t have a situation like they have in Italy,” he added.

Then came Slutes.

It was a tough decision and one that Slutes has rolled over and over again in his head the past few weeks as the coronavirus steamrolled through the world.

He played out different scenarios, including limiting the number of people at Hotel Congress concerts, which are held in the more intimate Club Congress and increasingly on the hotel’s sprawling patio facing East Toole Avenue.

He put on an optimistic face: “We are going to look at every option; it changes every hour,” he said Friday morning as he prepared to meet with city officials to bat around some ideas. “We are going to pivot as we can, and we feel that life has to go on.”

Life for Slutes is music, from fronting the popular Sidewinders band in his 20s in the 1980s to promoting and curating the concert series for Hotel Congress. He breathes rock ’n’ roll and artistic expression, and the thought that it was being silenced hurts him in a place he can barely register.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said somberly. “The reverberations are only beginning.”

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at or 573-4642. On Twitter @Starburch

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