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Just because COVID-19 restrictions are lifting doesn’t mean venues are opening

Over the past 24 hours, several states have reduced the restrictions in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. On Tuesday, both Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves abruptly decided to lift all capacity restrictions on businesses and end their states’ mask mandates starting next week. Then today, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that plays, concerts, and other performances can resume indoors at limited capacity beginning next month. Just because music venues are allowed to reopen, however, doesn’t mean they’re all jumping at the opportunity to do so.

The intensity and longevity of the coronavirus pandemic has been a major burden, if not an outright death bell, for independent music venues over the past year. Despite Congress allocating $15 billion for theaters and concert venues in a relief package thanks to the Save Our Stages Act, numerous locations are still struggling to survive, even with the aid of crowdfunding efforts. But for many, the fact they’re technically allowed to start ushering fans into gigs again doesn’t feel worth it considering vaccines still aren’t widely available for employees, concertgoers, and musicians alike.

Steve Wertheimer, the owner of Continental Club in Austin, said his venue “will be closed until it is deemed safe for us to open our doors, and we will closely follow CDC guidelines once we do open.” SXSW staple Mohawk echoed that sentiment on Twitter, albeit with fewer words targeted at Abbott. “Thanks bro but we ain’t gonna do it till it’s safe,” they wrote.

Jack McFadden, the talent buyer for other downtown venues in Austin like ACL Live and 3Ten, was equally frustrated. “Abbott and the GOP is BAD FOR BUSINESS,” he said. “I literally just confirmed a dozen socially distanced shows for summer that get to go away because (Abbott) decided to pull the mask mandate, thus 4th wave. HE COULD’VE DONE NOTHING.”

Over in Mississippi, venues like The Thirsty Hippo have announced they’re staying closed until the CDC guidelines for group sizes indicate it’s safe to hold limited-capacity concerts indoors again. Others, like Proud Larry’s, have doubled down on the importance of wearing masks and keeping their employees safe above all else.

New York’s slightly stricter regulation changes — venues that reopen can do so at 33% capacity up to 100 people indoors, social distancing is mandatory, and masks are still a must — come with an asterisk: if all attendees test negative before entering the building, then indoor capacity limits can be increased to 150 people. However, a handful of venue owners told Rolling Stone that organizing a show for a crowd that small likely won’t offset the cost of organizing it, nevermind generate a reasonable profit. Until that’s possible, why bother?

Michael Swier, who co-founded New York’s Bowery Ballroom and runs Mercury Lounge, said his venues don’t have any hopes for partial-capacity shows. “Given that social distancing is still part of the metric, it brings us back down to an approximate 20 percent capacity, which is untenable,” he told Rolling Stone.

If the so-called live music capital of the world isn’t keen on jump-starting live music in the traditional sense, then that probably gives us a good idea of what to expect from in-person concerts this spring. Nobody summarized that mindset better than Cody Cowan — the executive director of the Red River Cultural District, which includes clubs like Cheer Up Charlies and Stubb’s — who explained the pitfalls of mask-free capacity free-for-alls with a straightforward list:

“While small businesses continue to have to make hard decisions for survival, several things are true for live music venues & cultural tourism businesses:
1. The pandemic is ongoing. Texas is 5th to last in continental US vaccinations.
2. Consumer confidence for in-person experiences is low due to public health realities.
3. Many venues depend upon tours and festivals to pay rent & those will not come back nationwide for some time.
4. Return to 100% will not only negatively affect public health, but also may also trigger outstanding debt as due, by manufacturing the false public perception of financial viability for cultural tourism businesses & industry workers employment.
We continue to wish everyone safe health and best economic outcomes during the pandemic, and look forward to rapid & widespread vaccinations, so that we can all get back to those intimate and beautiful music experiences and into economic recovery.”

Editor’s note: Join us in the effort to protect live music by picking up a face mask or T-shirt from Consequence Shop. Proceeds from each sale benefit independent musicians and venues impacted by the pandemic through charities such as MusiCares and NIVA. Better yet, we’re currently offering a free two-pack of face masks with the purchase of any premium mask pack.


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