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Summerfest just demolished your excuses about concert safety

It’s time for Wisconsin’s venues and music promoters to show a united front.

It’s time for Wisconsin’s venues and music promoters to show a united front.

Photo: Crowds spread out across the Summerfest grounds in 2019, with the Milwaukee skyline in the background. Photo by Ryan Dickey on Flickr.

Wisconsin’s largest music event, Summerfest, announced on Tuesday that it will enforce COVID-19 safety protocols during its September return: to get in, you’ll need a vaccination card showing that you’re fully vaccinated, or a negative COVID test from within the past 72 hours, and kids under 12 (who do not yet have access to a vaccine) will be required to wear masks. In light of this move and the increased spread of COVID-19 even in highly vaccinated Dane County, there’s no excuse for other music promoters and venues to stop at half-measures. 

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Politely encouraging masks and vaccinations doesn’t cut it. Neither does pledging to follow soft guidelines from local public-health officials or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Firm and reasonable protocols need to be the standard for live music this fall. If you’re waiting for decent government leadership on this, you’ve been living under a rock for the past year and a half. So it falls to venues, event organizers, performers, and audiences themselves to take charge of the issue. A vaccination requirement should be the standard.

Let’s not give Summerfest too much credit too soon. The effectiveness of the protocols will come down to enforcement at the festival gates. There are also fake vaccination cards, though I’ve yet to see evidence that large numbers of people are buying them. (I hope it’s more of a media- and law enforcement-driven panic—getting vaccinated and not doing a federal crime is free.) This year’s Lollapalooza (owned by Live Nation, which also has a hand in Summerfest) in Chicago touted much the same policies and made dubious claims about their enforcement—and in any case it was just plain reckless to hold an event of that scale as COVID variants spread, including to the fully vaccinated. It helps that Summerfest’s dozen-plus stages are spread out across the festival’s large concrete basin by the Interstate in Milwaukee, catering to a variety of distinct audiences throughout the day with its wild bounty of mediocrities and genuine treasures. Anyways, the point is that Summerfest’s organizers are at least acknowledging their responsibility to address safety concerns amid an ongoing pandemic.

A lot of small venues in Wisconsin were ahead of Summerfest and many other of their large counterparts, rolling out various requirements and capacity limits with varying degrees of enforcement and strictness: the Stoughton Opera House, Crucible, the Bur Oak, Robinia Courtyard, FIVE Nightclub, Kiki’s House of Righteous Music, and Milwaukee’s Cactus Club, to name a few. Other small venues key to Madison’s music community, like Bos Meadery and Mickey’s Tavern, seem to be mostly sticking with patio shows for now. (Several of our writers are working on a series about how local venues are handling the current moment, so keep your eye out for that.)

Some of these smaller venues are taking a tougher stance than the big ones. FPC Live, which runs venues including The Sylvee, High Noon Saloon, Majestic, and Orpheum and books large concerts at Breese Stevens Field, requires masks for unvaccinated people (and says masks are “strongly encouraged” for everyone), and pledges that all employees will be vaccinated and wear masks. It is currently running its indoor shows at full capacity. I’ve reached out to see if FPC Live has any updates on that, and have not heard back as of initial publication. Live Nation, which owns a majority stake in FPC Live, has announced that it will let artists set stricter policies for upcoming shows, and we’ve yet to see how that will play out. The Overture Center is requiring masks indoors regardless of vaccination status, but not requiring vaccination. Music venues at UW-Madison, including the Wisconsin Union Theater, will be following the current campus protocols, which require masks indoors but does not mandate vaccinations. These are at least stances that remind people to behave responsibly, even if I don’t think they go far enough. 

Venues did not show a united front on COVID policies during this spring and summer’s return to indoor and outdoor live events, and they still haven’t. The existing approaches are all over the place—some places are checking vaccination cards and some aren’t, some are doing full-capacity indoor events and some aren’t, and so forth. It’s been hard for venues to figure out what to do, especially small, struggling ones where intimacy is the whole point. 

Venues and events vary widely, so maybe there shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all approach. But there can be some minimum baselines. Enforcing them firmly can encourage unvaccinated people who can get vaccinated to do so, and create that much more protection for vulnerable people who can’t get vaccinated. Summerfest’s requirements can put some extra muscle behind that social pressure.

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