NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The coronavirus vaccine gave the live entertainment industry hope for a rebound in 2021. Now, as Covid-19 cases surge and hospital beds fill up, it feels like March 2020 all over again.
Tom DeGeorge runs the popular Crowbar club in Tampa, Florida, that once hosted about 300 concerts a year, mostly touring bands. He managed to stay afloat and reopen last fall, hosting about six shows a month. But with cases surging in Florida, show cancellations have racked up and attendance has plummeted.
“The amount of people that are coming out right now is I’d say about 25, 30 percent of what it should be,” said DeGeorge. “I have a feeling that I’m probably going to lose the majority of my fall and winter calendar, but I’m basically already mentally prepared for the worst-case scenario.”
In hope of salvaging and surviving another devastating year, the industry is moving rapidly toward vaccine mandates for concertgoers, event staff and crew. In some instances, fans are being asked to show proof of vaccination or a negative test — such as for Harry Styles' upcoming fall U.S. tour.
But the politicization of the pandemic and vaccines have dealt venues like DeGeorge’s another heavy blow. Across the country, there are a myriad of state and local rules that regulate when and where mask mandates and vaccine requirements can be enforced.
In Florida and Texas, for instance, governors have issued bans on vaccine passports, which in some cases apply to private businesses. Some governors' executive orders are being challenged — either in court or by businesses experimenting with how far they can go.
“What we’ve seen really in Austin is people with a lack of clear direction trying to explore and understand what can be done,” said Cody Cowan, executive director of Red River Cultural District in Austin, Texas, home to 15 music venues. “I think certainly the sentiment is, by both the venues and the musicians, that everyone wants public health in place, even if the state has decided to not put orders in place around public health.”
He said Austin venues are trying out various vaccine and testing requirements — but that comes with significant risk. Texas state law says businesses can’t require customers to show proof of a Covid-19 vaccination. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, which regulates liquor licenses, has notified some restaurants and music venues that their requirements were not in compliance. For most music venues, alcohol sales are a majority of their revenue, and Cowan says that indicates the state is willing to penalize venues for violations of Covid-19 rules.
“You may have your license suspended, revoked or taken away permanently if you choose to attempt to enforce public health," Cowan said. “That’s the sort of fear we’re living under constantly."
Adjoining venues ACL Live and 3TEN will comply with requests by performers to require fans to show negative test results and masks are required, according to Colleen Fischer, general manager and director of booking for both venues. If a fan won't provide test results, they will also accept proof of vaccination.
Florida's DeGeorge said he’s been spit on by a patron and others have tried to physically fight him over requirements to wear masks. He feels that anger stems from political messaging about masks and other virus protection policies.
But he worries more that as vaccine mandates become industry standards in other places, touring artists won’t bother coming to Florida.
“Touring bands, the best of the best, are not going to come down here if they don’t feel like they can be safe and we can’t offer to them the same assurances that they have in other states,” DeGeorge said.