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Farewell to Madison venues’ COVID consensus

Photo: Vieux Farka Touré and band playing The Bur Oak in Madison in March 2022. A seated crowd is shown in the foreground.

The outlook as safety measures change or vanish.

A couple weeks back I went to The Bur Oak to see Vieux Farka Touré, the Malian guitarist. The place was packed, more so than I expected on a Sunday night, though I really should have known better—Touré has played to respectable crowds in Madison before, including at the summer’s east side festivals. It was a seated show, which made things a bit less overwhelming than they might have been. The show room is cozy. Oh well. People don’t go to shows for the acres of personal space. Before Touré came on, the line at the bar stretched well into the aisle between chairs. I lucked into one of the remaining bar stools.

The venue had recently lifted all its COVID-19 safety measures. Most venues around Madison have either done the same or scaled back significantly. We’ve been tracking this through a spreadsheet, in partnership with our friends at Madison Minutes, and things are changing fast.

Approaches to masking and inhabiting space with others varied widely throughout the audience that night at The Bur Oak. I felt not quite freaked out but not quite re-acclimated to something I used to do all the time, for much of my adult life. Mostly my trepidation got lost in the tumbling elegance of Touré’s bright, chorus-laden electric guitar. I bumped into a few people I really miss bumping into at shows—live music just wouldn’t feel complete without them. Or without various other Types of People You See at Shows. The guy who keeps very loudly trying to order beers the bar does not sell. People in band T-shirts that seem incongruous for that particular show but are all the more awesome for it (a Neurosis shirt at a Vieux Farka Touré show? I swear I saw it and it made me happy). 

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At this point I’ve accepted the obvious: People are going to make their own decisions about what risks to take for themselves and by extension for everyone around them. We’ll go through cycles of COVID Rumspringa and variant waves until the accursed thing becomes endemic.

People are deeply, wearily, exuberantly ready for an abundance of shows. We are muddling through and we are bursting out with abandon. We are relieved and we are uncertain. This time last year, before Dane County’s vaccination rate began its rapid climb, the push to bring back live shows felt extremely dicey. Now that we have a high vaccination rate, have experienced a couple of surges, and know that breakthrough cases are a potentially serious thing, the risks involved at least feel a whole lot more informed, the exuberance tempered.

Madison-area venues large and small, scrappy and consolidated, deserve a lot of credit for holding together a consensus on safety measures for as long as they did. By early August 2021, a critical mass of indoor music venues around town required vaccinations or negative tests, masking, and so forth. The fortitude of independent venues mattered, as did the outsize influence of FPC Live, in sending a fairly unified message. This reflected well on a range of very different folks who probably don’t always see eye to eye. (Venues on UW-Madison’s campus never had a vaccination requirement.) This state of affairs held pretty steadily until Dane County’s mask mandate lifted on March 1. 

That’s about seven months of these venues being safer than they “had to” be, without anything much in the way of outside logistical support. Venues never had a state or local vaccine mandate to back them up. And even when mask mandates are in effect, they are all too easy to blow off and tough to enforce consistently. At businesses that rely heavily on alcohol sales, as most venues do, the task is somewhere between tedious and pointless. Some places have held off entirely on bringing back shows, and as recently as January, some of them were feeling pretty bleak about things.

We should appreciate what an undertaking this has been, especially for small, independently owned businesses that make slim profit margins even in normal times. Some shows did indeed lead to outbreaks. There were still risks. But show-goers during this period at least knew what to expect at most venues, had a reasonable chance of reducing their risks, and got to enjoy themselves. I personally wouldn’t have minded keeping these protections in place for a few more months. Then again, that’s asking a lot of these venues to stretch out their resources even more thinly. 

Public health should come first, and it’s got to have the “public” part in it. Asking private actors to safeguard that without a strong framework of support from government (and/or extra income, in the form of higher ticket and drink prices) just does not work in the long run. It’s not a fair thing to ask of bartenders and other service workers who are already fried from two years of lost income and exceedingly stressful work environments. It’s not a fair thing to ask of venue owners who’ve pulled through a period that could have ruined them, and who don’t have a ton of credit or investment capital to fall back on. (It is maybe a more reasonable ask for a subsidiary of the world’s largest concert promoter, but even the biggest live-entertainment companies are not, you know, a substitute for health agencies.) This is not an argument against regulating business, but rather an argument for regulating them with the right planning and follow-through. Venues have to follow fire safety rules, safe alcohol serving practices, food safety rules, and so on, but there is infrastructure around those things—training, inspections, a division of labor, rules that are written down somewhere and stay relatively stable.

When we started asking venues for updates on their COVID policies as the mask mandate came to an end in late February, it was impossible to miss how run-down people were feeling with it all. Some venues were clearly scrambling to figure out what to do. Some just couldn’t see how to hold together much of a COVID policy much longer. Robinia Courtyard, for instance, was a bit ahead of most other local venues in adopting a vaccination mandate in June 2021. By the end of February 2022, owner Jonathan Reske was ready to scale it back to a mask requirement for staff, leaving individual event promoters the option of enforcing their own restrictions.

“We simply can’t afford (financially and emotionally) to keep this added later to our operations,” Reske wrote in an email at the time.

I can’t fault this perspective, even though the pandemic is definitely not “over.” It’s unconscionable that service industry staff often have to serve as front-line COVID safety enforcers, all with very little backup. The downside is the current state of affairs leaves it up to artists and audiences to push for more safety measures when appropriate. Touring artists applied pressure on this earlier in the pandemic, and quite a few are still asking people to stay masked at shows, because it’s so easy for COVID to derail their primary source of income. Most of the venues in Madison that have reduced COVID measures have also expressed their willingness to adjust on a show-by-show basis, and that’s great.

Ramping up outdoor music will feel much less fraught this year, thanks to our high vaccination rate and the overall much lower risk that comes with being outdoors. Madisonians love their outdoor shows and festivals and whatnot. Madison should radically expand upon those offerings. The extension of the city’s Streatery program creates more openings, and a proposal last summer that would have limited outdoor music at Streatery position was more of a well-intentioned mistake than an attempted crackdown. Newer series like State Street Jams and Mad Lit have given our outdoor music options a much-needed youthful kick. Involving more neighborhoods, artists, and audiences can only be a plus. It would also make the return of shows less stressful and easier to sustain.

This is our newsletter-first column, Microtones. It runs on the site on Fridays, but you can get it in your inbox on Thursdays by signing up for our email newsletter.

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