Requiring proof of vaccination at concerts is becoming the new normal as the touring industry returns amid another wave of the coronavirus pandemic, but in 20 states across the country there are bans on such mandates, complicating measures to safely keep live music going.
At risk of losing out on major tours in 2021 as a result, venues and promoters in Florida and Texas are now honing in on the wording of the two state’s executive orders, which ban vaccine mandates but don’t ban venues from requiring fans to show negative COVID-19 test results in order to gain entry to a concert. The loophole is that venue operators can accept proof of vaccination for entry in lieu of a negative COVID-19 test result. This, oddly enough, creates the same restrictions for fans in Texas and Florida that exist in nearly every other state, but gives the governors in both states the political cover they need to claim they aren’t backing down.
Tom DeGeorge, owner of Crowbar in Tampa, Florida, is one of the venue owners offering artists and promoters a choice on whether to require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for attendees. DeGeorge, who sought legal counsel alongside fellow National Independent Venue Association members to unpack the executive order, tells Billboard it was within their rights to ask for a negative test and that patrons could volunteer proof of vaccination instead. A representative from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ office has confirmed the loophole’s legality to Billboard.
The same loophole has been okayed in Texas, according to Texas promoter and owner of Resound Presents Graham Williams, who characterizes the loophole as “just backwards wording.” Indeed, major festivals like Live Nation’s Austin City Limits Music Festival, which is set for October, have already adopted the loophole language for their safety policies.
“Lawyers and the Texas Music Office in the governor’s office and all these other people have talked it over, and as far as I know, there’s sort of a general agreement that it is doable as long as there is an option,” says Williams. “I felt like as long as you are offering the option, then you’re not requiring vaccinations only.” However, by placing that extra hurdle for unvaccinated attendees, promoters are providing “another positive reason to get the vaccine,” he adds.
Crowbar’s DeGeorge says Florida venues and promoters have warned the governor’s office about the ban, explaining that requiring proof of vaccination “is the direction the industry is going, and if we can’t do these things there is a good possibility we’ll lose many of our artists in the fall and winter.”
Those businesses are responding to policies being implemented by the artists themselves; in August, several touring musicians began publicly calling for vaccination requirements at their 2021 shows. Harry Styles announced his Love On Tour dates would require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test when he returns to the stage in September. Dead & Company’s 2021 tour requires fans to provide the same information, and only fully vaccinated attendees will be allowed in their general admission pit sections. And in late August, indie rock band Spoon moved their September show in Des Moines, Iowa, across I-80 to Omaha, Nebraska, because Iowa bans businesses from requiring proof of vaccination.
Jason Isbell has also called for the same requirements and canceled three performances for not agreeing to the terms, including shows at Brandon Amphitheater in Mississippi, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion on the Tennessee-Virginia border and a show with Lucinda Williams at The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in Texas.
“From everything that I’ve heard so far, all the response I’ve gotten from people in the business has been positive because they understand we could go back to not working at all,” Isbell told MSNBC on Aug. 9. “A lot of these smaller venues will not be able to reopen if they go through another round of shutdowns.”
The two major concert promoters in the U.S., AEG and Live Nation, have also announced vaccine requirements and vaccine proof or proof of a negative COVID test, respectively, to attend concerts fully operated by the companies. Both companies have emphasized that their policies will be in place where permitted by law, but according to Ballotpedia, 20 states across the country have implemented some form of a ban on businesses requiring proof of vaccination (masks can be required by businesses in Florida and Texas). In March, more than 30 music venues in Austin came together to establish their own public health code-of-conduct and safety program following Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to lift the mask mandate for all of Texas.
Technology companies have made it easy for venues to discreetly check customers’ health information. Crowbar has implemented the use of touchless access apps including Clear, where the venue can set its parameters for entering a show (e.g. full vaccination or a recent negative test result) and, without divulging any medical information, the app can indicate whether or not the person meets the requirements to enter.
“We were able to find ways to get around things to make sure we were in line with what a lot of other states could do,” says DeGeorge. “I want the option to be able to do everything within the law to make our clients and customers happy and keep them as safe as possible.”