There’s no doubt concerts are coming back this year. They’re already happening around the country, mostly outdoors or in venues with capacity restrictions and mask mandates. Bands are announcing fall tours en masse, and major outdoor music festivals like Governor’s Ball, Bonnaroo, and Outside Lands have already unveiled their lineups. While the return of live music is basically guaranteed, there’s little clarity on whether potential concertgoers will need to prove they’re vaccinated in order to go to a show.
Last month, the Biden administration announced that there would be no federal “vaccine passport” that would give a digital or paper credential to vaccinated individuals so they could attend sporting events, concerts, or other travel. "The government is not now, nor will be, supporting a system that requires Americans to carry a credential," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in an April press conference. "Our interest is very simple from the federal government, which is that Americans' privacy and rights should be protected, and so that these systems are not used against people unfairly." Because there’s no nationwide standard, states and businesses have been left to figure it out for themselves.
In March, New York became the first state to release a digital vaccine passport called Excelsior Pass, a free app and website where users can prove they’ve been vaccinated or gotten a recent negative coronavirus test result. Current state guidelines require reopened businesses that deal with crowds, such as theaters, major stadiums and arenas, wedding receptions, and catered events to check customers for the COVID-19. San Francisco also requires these screenings and credentials for entry to baseball and basketball games. Meanwhile, states like Florida, Texas, Utah, and Montana have banned vaccine passports altogether. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed the measure is “stemming the tide of local and state government overreach.” Even though vaccine passports don’t exist at scale, the subject is already a culture war minefield.
Despite the political fear-mongering, most states and cities have no plans for a vaccine passport system, they are trying to incentivize vaccinations by offering perks at live events. This week, the City of Chicago announced a new concert program called the Protect Chicago Music Series, which is only available to vaccinated concertgoers while the Los Angeles Dodgers offer special seating sections exclusively to vaccinated fans with relaxed social distancing restrictions. Artists like Brandi Carlile are doing one-off shows just for vaccinated fans while Lupe Fiasco said fans would need to get the shot before they can see him perform. City Winery New York has begun reopening in line with state protocols requiring a vaccine or a negative test using the CLEAR app, where concertgoers can fill out a health questionnaire. “We’re very excited about pushing this forward so there’s a psychological comfort of being in a bubble knowing that everyone around you has also gotten vaccinated,” said Michael Dorf, CEO and chairman of City Winery to CNBC.
However, there’s no consensus in the live music industry. “We’re grateful to learn that there will not be a national mandated verification program; independent venues will be making their own individual policy decisions taking into account guidelines and recommendations from the CDC,” said National Independent Venue Association spokesperson Audrey Fix Schaefer in a statement to VICE. “That said, while vaccine verification is the hot topic, we have questions and concerns surrounding the effectiveness of only implementing verification at live events and not other business where people gather.” That statement also mentioned that NIVA has “concerns about equitable access, ethical considerations and the issue of small businesses shouldering the brunt of cost of implementing the program, which may or may not be practicable for small businesses.”
Without a federal vaccine pass or uniform system to credential potential concertgoers and the fact that misinformation is rampant about vaccines and vaccine passports, venues and fans are going to be at the mercy of state, local, and even individual businesses’ COVID-19 guidelines. While it’s impossible to predict the future as more people get vaccinated and case numbers hopefully continue to decline, restrictions will likely ease by the fall to the point where proving vaccination isn’t a concern.