In Addition to a Pandemic, Texas Venues Must Now Survive Their Own Governor

After Gov. Abbott lifted mask mandates and COVID-19 restrictions, music venue owners, workers, and promoters are fighting back.
JT
Chicago, US
The White Horse - Austin, Texas
AUSTIN, TX - MARCH 10: Lloyd Weatherspoon and Hope Wilson dance during a break between songs performed by Johnny McGowan's Rugged Gents at The White Horse on March 10, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Tamir Kalifa/Getty Images)

On March 2, Texas Independence Day, Governor Greg Abbott announced that the state would lift all coronavirus restrictions, including mask mandates and public gathering restrictions, starting March 10. “I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%,” Abbott tweeted. “EVERYTHING. It is time!” Abbott’s order disallows local governments from maintaining and enforcing their own mask mandates. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton threatened to sue the city of Austin and Travis County for trying to supersede it. 

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The news came as a shock to the owners of independent venues across the state, especially as larger Texas-based events like South By Southwest have gone completely virtual in 2021. Several institutions are choosing to remain closed, or cautiously open, holding shows at limited capacity, masked, and outdoors, to combat what they feel is premature and unsafe reopening. 

Austin venue Mohawk responded to the news on March 2, tweeting, “Thanks bro but we ain’t gonna do it till it’s safe.” They followed that up on March 10, the day of the reopening, with a masked emoji: “Today is no different from yesterday - just be cool bro." Another Austin venue, the Continental Club, posted a statement on Facebook, “We 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. We are counting on a more efficient rollout of the vaccines and hoping to see you sooner than later.”

Venue owners and workers VICE spoke to said that this is another obstacle for venues who have to have to balance bills with the safety of their staff, customers, and performers.”"It's way too premature to lift the mask mandate to open things up 100 percent when there's still people struggling to get a vaccine in the first place,” said Trish Connelly, talent buyer for Austin's Cheer Up Charlies, which has been closed since March 2020. Chris Sakaguchi, who previously worked at Texas’ largest independent show promoter Margin Walker before the pandemic forced it to permanently shutter, stressed that safety is the biggest concern facing the future of live music. “I don't think it's possible to run a show at any kind of capacity that isn't minimal, that doesn't completely adhere to CDC guidelines.” 

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Their concerns are echoed by leading health experts like Dr. Ashish K. Jha, the dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, who has cited concerns that not enough people are getting vaccinated across the country, and that new COVID-19 variants pose a threat to public health. "[Reopening and lifting mask mandates] now risks a lot of people getting infected and dying unnecessarily, when we are this close to the end [of the pandemic]," he told The New Yorker.

In Austin, 30 of the city’s venues and businesses, like Cheer Up Charlies and Mohawk, banded together on March 10 to form the Safe In Sound initiative. Organized with the Red River Cultural District, it’s a new safety program and code-of-conduct pledge requiring masks, social distancing, proper PPE supply and use, training in safety practices, and other measures to keep workers and customers adhering to CDC guidelines. “After hearing from countless workers about the new level of fear that this new mandate has instilled upon those who work and perform within the district, I refuse to stand by and not stand up for what I, and many others like me, believe to be right,” Red River Cultural District Executive Director Cody Cowan wrote in a statement announcing the initiative. “We hope that these collective actions send a strong message to the public that although we want to reopen, we will only do so in a manner that provides a safe environment for all.”

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Though Austin, which describes itself as the live music capital of the world, is leading the charge against Gov. Abbott's reopening order, venues and live music workers elsewhere in the state are reeling too. Matthew Harber is the owner of Spune Productions, a Dallas-based event promotions company, booking agency, and music company. Tulips, the Fort Worth venue that he co-owns, has been operating at limited capacity, with masking and distancing strictly enforced. “The governor basically removed the rug out from underneath everybody and put venues in a position where we have to figure out what the balance is between safety and business,” he said. “For us—we're going to continue with the masks, and only gradually increase capacity when it's safer.” 

Harber said that lifting the mask mandate opens up venues up to potential conflict with attendees who don't want to wear masks—or, conversely, with performers who won't feel comfortable playing shows with unmasked people in the crowd, or patrons who will shy away from shows for similar reasons. "There's going to be part of the population that is going to be less likely to spend money in local businesses over the coming weeks, because they're going to be worried that people aren't going to be wearing masks and are going to potentially put them at risk," he said. “Short term is not going to result in there being increased businesses for people that were already struggling. This could be very harmful for us.”

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There are other reasons why the reopening is unlikely to do much to increase the financial strain venues are feeling. Harber explains that even venues opening at limited capacity won't be able to host touring out-of-state artists anytime soon. “The touring industry doesn't work that way,” he said. "Because Texas is open, booking agents need dozens other states to put together a tour. So what happens just in Texas isn't going to help bring back live music.” 

For workers at reopening venues and the people who run them, Gov. Abbott's announcement triggered a host of additional concerns. "There was a resurgence of the anxiety and stress and fear that happened during the first reopenings for our own safety," said Jeannette Gregor, a furloughed music festival production worker and Mohawk bartender. "For the venues we work at, we worry the first person that's going to react to something like that it's going to be all of the landlords. If you can reopen, where's all of my rent money?" 

In 2020, Gregor started The Amplified Sound Coalition, a non-profit that has fought for money for shuttered venues and unemployed music workers, in addition to advocating for safe reopening, venue workers assisting with the vaccine effort, and more inclusive practices in the live music space. On Monday, the Amplified Sound Coalition organized a demonstration at the Texas State Capitol building to protest Gov. Abbott's announcement. "Workers have rights: We demand safety in our workplaces," reads their statement. "Rescinding the mask mandate puts safety enforcement in our hands, which makes our jobs harder and more dangerous." Attendees enumerated a series of demands that included the Amplified Sound Coalition's #70Before100 campaign, which demands that 70 percent of essential workers be vaccinated before businesses can reopen at 100 percent capacity.

"We're so close to getting vaccines into the arms of everyone who wants them, but we're not there," Gregor said. "So we need to change the conversation: Instead of, ‘How do we get back to work as quickly as possible?’ it should be, 'How do we vaccinate enough of our population so that everyone can reopen and everyone is safe?’”