WICKER PARK — Music and performance venues are scrambling to decide which COVID-19 protocols they should enforce as the city lifts its mask and vaccine card mandates.
The city’s mandates will end Monday. Businesses are still allowed to enforce their own COVID-19 safety rules — but some owners think the move is premature and wish the city had given them more time to prepare for what could be a major change.
The Chicago Independent Venue League, also known as CIVL, has encouraged concertgoers to continue masking and carrying proof they’re vaccinated as individual venues make their own decisions about safety protocols.
“We’re proud of Chicago’s progress in the face of increasingly contagious variants, but we’re only here because safety has been our priority,” according to a CIVL news release. “It still is, and we’re asking patrons to be vigilant — to know before they go. … Every venue is different, and for many, these small efforts have brought relief. We’re still here because so many have chosen safety, and we ask patrons to do the same.”
At Sleeping Village in Avondale and The Whistler in Logan Square, proof of vaccination will still be required to enter, said owner Billy Helmkamp. But masks will now just be recommended, not mandated.
“The reason for that being mask enforcement these past couple months has been a challenge, and I think without the city having a mask mandate in place, it’ll move from a challenge to an impossibility,” Helmkamp said.
Helmkamp said his venues, like many across the city, have required proof of vaccination since reopening in 2021. The city’s vaccine mandate started Jan. 3.
“We first put our vax policy in place back in June of last year. It took six months for the city to catch up and institute a vax policy, and the fact that it’s only been in place for two months before it’s pulled up again is pretty surprising,” Helmkamp said.
Masks will also be optional at Avondale Music Hall and the Patio Theater in Portage Park, although that could change on a show-by-show basis. Owner Chris Bauman said his venues will still require proof of vaccination, but they will also start accepting a negative test.
“I have met legitimate people who just cannot get the vaccine for some sort of medical thing, or they have an allergy. And so it’s fair that these people should not be ostracized from [being] able to go to a concert or whatnot,” he said.
Bauman said the venues’ COVID-19 rules could change depending on what the performing artist requests, adding another layer of logistical hassles.
“If musicians are requiring masks, then we will communicate that to fans who have bought tickets that the musician needs masks for this particular show,” he said.
The preferences of performers and artists is also big concern for Robert Gomez, who owns Beat Kitchen in Lakeview and Subterranean in Wicker Park.
Gomez said he’s considering dropping the mask and vaccine requirements for his venues on a regular basis but putting them back in place when a performer asks for them.
“One school of thought that I might implement is, literally a show-by-show basis … reaching out to the artists to say, ‘Mandates have been dropped. You booked the show because vaccines and masks were going to be required. What do you want to do?'” he said.
“It’s a crazy idea, but you have to factor in the artists and what they are comfortable with. That’s the situation they are now facing.”
Many other theaters and performing arts venues will also continue to require proof of vaccination and masks.
The League of Chicago Theatres, which represents a “coalition of more than 60 performing arts venues and producers” across the region, said its theaters will continue to ask customers to mask and show proof of vaccination, while also accepting negative tests in some situations.
Bruce Finkleman, managing partner of the group that operates the Empty Bottle, Thalia Hall and other venues, said he’s still speaking with staff about how to proceed once the mandates are lifted.
“Our line has been very much the same for the whole thing, which is we want to provide a safe place for the artists and our staff and our customers,” Finkleman said. “So we’re continuing monitoring what’s coming out with the mandates and making sure that the CDC is putting out the same type of information. We want to make sure that everybody feels safe coming back to the venues and continuing to support live music.”
The decision to drop the vaccine and mask mandates comes after a brutal few months for Chicago’s music venues, as the Omicron variant sent COVID-19 cases skyrocketing and kept many concertgoers home.
Even when tickets for a show have sold well, patrons often don’t end up coming, Gomez said. For Subterranean’s sold-out New Year’s Eve show, 50 percent of people didn’t show up. That was followed by show cancellations and low ticket sales.
“January, February were absolutely terrible,” Gomez said. “You don’t recover from that. Just because you’re moving a show from January to April, well you would have had a different show in April. You don’t recover from that loss.”
Finkleman said his businesses have also “felt the heat” from Omicron. People are beginning to return and shows are on the books, though, which is a “positive,” he said.
As venues establish a patchwork of COVID-19 rules, Bauman is encouraging concertgoers to check rules before they go to a show and to be patient with venue staff.
“Everyone just needs to make sure they’re respectful of whatever venue’s choices they’re making, because those choices are really representative to make sure that it’s as safe as possible for their particular venue and the musicians that are performing,” he said.
But with COVID-19 numbers down and people starting to find their way back to live performances, venue owners said the future of live music is bright in Chicago.
“I am definitely optimistic that things are getting better,” Helmkamp said. “We’re certainly not out of the woods yet. But I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
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