The Madison venue continues to shift its admission policy in an effort to stay open and safe.
Photo: The New Breed Jazz Jam and guest saxophonist-vocalist Arun Lutha perform at Robinia on June 15 as part of the Madison Jazz Festival. (Photo by Scott Gordon)
Over the first stretch of summer, walking into Robinia Courtyard had felt transportive, recalling a pre-pandemic era. The atmosphere and ease at the indoor-outdoor complex on East Wash made it hard to believe it was just restarting after being closed for so long. Since Robinia reopened its indoor seating in May, the bar at its Madison Tap space has been filled from end to end, the bartenders moving along the crowd and serving up drinks with a casual elegance. Black Locust Café, at the front of the space, buzzes with the warmth of coffee dates, study groups, and brunches. And the namesake courtyard in the middle is overflowing with chatter, laughter, and the sound of live music which, after a months-long hiatus, has only just begun to return.
But underlying the easygoing hum that fills the space are constant concerns and rapidly shifting plans about how to best respond to the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic. For Jon Reske, co-owner of Robinia, it’s not enough to follow the status quo. This stance was made apparent after Dane County lifted its mask mandate on June 2. “We always like to think of ourselves as being just slightly ahead of the curve [when it comes to responding to COVID],” Reske says. At the time, Robinia was one of few spaces locally that continued to require all visitors to wear masks when not seated. For much of the time Robinia has been open again, all nightlife events held at the space have required proof of vaccination for entry. “There’s just going to be a blanket rule. We’re not treating vaccinated differently from non-vaccinated,” Reske says. “You can do that two ways—you can either be more lenient on the non-vaccinated or you can be slightly harsher on those who are already vaccinated.”
Robinia did briefly relax its mask policies over the summer. But on August 3, amid rising concerns about the Delta variant, Robinia quickly reshaped its policies to better align with the CDC’s recommendations. Masks are once again required for all visitors, as is proof of vaccination for late-night events.
Robinia was quick to enforce its new rules. By the evening of August 3, visitors were once again being reminded to wear masks, and offered masks if they had come without. Meanwhile, the venue has kept working to recapture its pre-pandemic role as a key spot for electronic music, also reviving its offerings of Latin jazz and Black Locust’s Comedy in the Vault open-mic night on Tuesdays. Since re-opening, Robinia has also become home base for the Tuesday-night New Breed Jazz Jam (which previously took place at the now-closed Cardinal Bar and then the North Street Cabaret), hosted installments of the annual Hot Summer Gays series, and participated in June’s Madison Jazz Festival.
While Reske had expressed concerns back in June about the difficulty of having to publicly take a stance on concerns related to COVID and masking due to rapid shifts, it seems like Robinia has poised itself to consistently hit what Reske refers to as a “moving target.” While there’s often a fine line between adapting to a situation and simply compromising to avoid conflict, Robinia has worked towards adaptation.
For Reske, public safety was, of course, one of the main factors that affected Robinia’s updates to its mask policy. “We’re not worried about liability,” he says, noting that there are exceptionally few safeguards in place to hold businesses accountable for the role they may play in facilitating the spread of COVID-19 to their staff and customers. Instead, Reske says he’s motivated first and foremost by the principle of doing no harm. “We’re trying to create not just a safe space but a super safe space,” he says. “We’re trying to keep those community events going on and still keep that window of our ability to harm other people as small as possible.”
Now that Public Health Madison and Dane County has completely dropped all additional COVID-related safety protocols—beyond non-binding guidance encouraging people to get vaccinated and wear masks indoors—Reske and the rest of the crew at Robinia are left using Robinia’s core principles to foster a sense of community. “I think there are very few places that can brag about their sense of community,” Reske says, “We kind of have fingers going into all forms of Madison’s community around here, which is great on so many levels.”
Even Robinia’s initial social media post from June 2 which announced its updated mask policy invokes this idea of making decisions for the whole of the community, claiming that its new policies are built on feedback from promoters, event hosts, performers, and clientele.
Like every other set of rules, policies, and measures that’s come about as a response to the pandemic, Robinia’s changing policies have already seen a fair amount of pushback. Unsurprisingly, some of it comes from the crowd that Reske describes as “vaccine-hesitant” who believe Robinia’s new policies are too uptight (“[they] probably won’t ever participate in this place anyway,” Reske says). There are also those who believe Robinia’s new policies create a sense of exclusivity and are antithetical to the idea of truly fostering community. “We’ve been attacked for exclusivity time and time again,” Reske admits. He compares it to venues that charge cover fees for events: “I don’t hear you yelling at anybody who has a $10 cover. We’re doing vaccinated free events. Is any place that charges at the door being exclusive?”
If the pushback to Robinia’s mask policy shows anything, it’s how difficult it is to answer the questions about rebuilding our senses of—and relationships to—the idea of community. After a year that’s been so defined by isolation and fragmentation, opening up about that struggle almost feels boring. When the only physical spaces where communities have been able to flourish since the beginning of the pandemic have also been the loci of intense fear, paranoia, and controversy, what does it feel like to try to turn back the clock and to breathe new life into the same spaces and relationships that were so abruptly and awkwardly left behind? What would it look like to build new ones, to choose which principles are worth championing for the sake of the community and which—while noble and worth pursuing in a different context—need to be left behind?
These questions are especially difficult to answer when, as Reske points out, our ideas of what keeps our communities safest can turn on a dime as new information becomes available. “Part of the problem with asking an institution or individual to firmly plant their feet stance-wise on this issue is that it could very easily change in two weeks,” he says. But if ever there were a time to face up to answering these difficult new questions, it’s right now, when there’s nothing to be lost and everything to be regained.
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