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Kennedy Center Calls Off Opening Weekend for Heist’s Rooftop Nightclub

The venue says it needs to reevaluate its safety plan before Heist seats over 300 people on its terrace

A rendering of the rooftop terrace at the Kennedy Center
A rendering of the rooftop terrace at the Kennedy Center
Heist [official]

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has called off plans to host the first weekend of a “lounge pop-up” from a popular D.C. nightclub on its rooftop terrace.

Two days after scene-y Dupont club Heist announced it had sold out tickets for an outdoor space with a 360-person capacity, the Kennedy Center decided it wasn’t ready to move forward with the opening night, set for Saturday, October 3. The weekly Saturday residency was supposed to include table reservations that cost up to $1,000, snack trays, and bottle service with single-serve mixers.

Kennedy Center’s decision appears to be based around Heist’s classification as a restaurant under Phase 2 of D.C.’s reopening protocols. Mass gatherings and open spaces are limited to 50 people, but restaurants have no explicit limit as long as they host customers at half capacity, create six feet of space between tables, and only serve seated customers who wear masks when they’re not eating or drinking. Heist planned to offer legally required food with alcohol, and its opening plans claimed to exclude dancing and live performance.

Heist’s announcement came days after D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser announced a pilot program for six venues to experiment with live entertainment, including the Kennedy Center. The pilot program comes with a 50-person limit, which led to confusion about why Heist would be allowed to invite more than 300. Eileen Andrews, the Kennedy Center’s vice president of public relations, clarified in a statement sent to Eater that the performing arts center’s participation in the program is separate from its collaboration with Heist.

“The Kennedy Center has determined the opening of the Heist pop-up, an outdoor rental event, will not take place this weekend (October 3) to allow for further evaluation and to ensure such gatherings meet our building’s health and safety standards as well as respect the city’s latest reopening guidelines,” the Kennedy Center’s statement says. “The Center’s recent and successful return to hosting live performance at reduced capacity required months of rigorous planning. Likewise, we hold outside parties renting our spaces to the same high level of scrutiny and precautionary planning, and more time is needed to fully assess these plans.”

In addition to mentioning the Kennedy Center, the city’s announcement for the live entertainment pilot says Heist Group at the Kennedy Center is one of eight entities D.C. has invited to apply for an outdoor entertainment license. Although the pilot program stipulates a 50-person limit for that program, it also says it hopes to evaluate “a controlled environment that can be scaled up or down.”

The seating plan Heist included on its reservations page included an area for a stage. The opening announcement for the rooftop lounge said “artists” would be screened for the COVID-19 symptoms along with guests.

Bowser’s chief of staff, John J. Falcicchio, told Washington City Paper that Heist’s pop-up at the Kennedy Center retracted its live entertainment application through the DC Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency over the weekend so it could classify as a restaurant.

After the original version of this story published Wednesday morning, Heist owner Vinoda Basnayake sent Eater a statement that said Kennedy Center’s decision amounts to a “delay” that can be chalked up to a desire to avoid being confused as a live entertainment venue.

“We agreed with the Kennedy Center that in an overabundance of caution we would delay our opening to ensure public awareness of all our safety protocols,” Basnayake’s statement says. “The Kennedy Center and the city have been incredible partners in our attempt to bring back responsible nightlife programming, and if we need to delay our opening in order to further ensure safety, that is a small sacrifice we are happy to make.”

Basnayake also says that Heist spent months planning the rooftop setup and negotiating with Kennedy Center before reaching a rental agreement.

“We applied for and received all the necessary permits, even hired a third party Covid-19 compliance officer, and got underway to open an outdoor venue pop-up at the Kennedy Center that was in full compliance with all of the city’s guidelines for outdoor reopening,” the statement says. “Our goal was to set the gold standard for a responsible nightlife reopening.”

Basnayake served on Bowser’s ReOpen DC advisory committee and was picked by the mayor as the chair of the city’s Commission on Nightlife and Culture.

“Some have asked if we were able to secure this space because of my personal connections,” Basnayake writes. “That could not be further than the truth, in fact I knew the scrutiny would be even greater for my businesses given my role on the Commision on Nightlife and Culture. We found a very unique outdoor space publicly available for rental and then applied for a program that has been accessible to every operator in the city for months.”

Update: Wednesday, September 30, 5:16 p.m. This story has been updated to include Basnayake’s comments on Kennedy Center’s decision to cancel the first weekend of Heist’s residence