Many music venues and theaters still require vaccinations under the City Drops mandate – but masks could become optional

WICKER PARK — Music and performance venues are scrambling to decide which COVID-19 protocols to enforce if the city lifts its mask and vaccination card mandates.

The mandates of the city end on 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 big change.

The Chicago Independent Venue League, also known as CIVL, has encouraged concert-goers to continue to mask and carry proof of vaccinations 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 was our priority,” the CIVL said in a press release. “It still is, and we ask guests 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 made safety choices, and we ask our guests to do the same.”

Credit: Jake Wittich/Block Club Chicago
More and more venues are requiring proof of vaccination to attend shows.

Proof of vaccination is still required at the Sleeping Village in Avondale and The Whistler in Logan Square, owner Billy Helmkamp said. But masks are now only recommended, not mandatory.

“The reason mask enforcement has been a challenge for the past few months and I think without the city having a mask mandate it will go from a challenge to an impossibility,” Helmkamp said.

Helmkamp said its venues, like many across the city, have been requiring proof of vaccination since reopening in 2021. The city’s immunization mandate began Jan. 3.

“We first launched our Vax policy in June of last year. It took the city six months to catch up and implement a Vax policy, and the fact that it’s only been in place for two months before it’s reinstated is quite surprising,” Helmkamp said.

Masks are also optional at Avondale Music Hall and the Patio Theater in Portage Park, although this can change from show to show. Owner Chris Bauman said his venues will continue to require proof of vaccination, but they will also start accepting a negative test.

“I’ve met legitimate people who just can’t get a vaccine for any medical thing or have an allergy. And so it is fair that these people should not be ostracized [being] able to go to a concert or something,” he said.

Bauman said venues’ COVID-19 rules could change based on the performer’s wishes, adding another layer of logistical issues.

“If musicians require masks, we will let fans who bought tickets know that the musician requires masks for that particular show,” he said.

Credit: Alex Hernandez/Block Club Chicago
The Patio Theater

The preferences of performers and artists are also of great concern to Robert Gomez, owner of Beat Kitchen in Lakeview and Subterranean in Wicker Park.

Gomez said he’s considering dropping mask and vaccine requirements for his venues regularly, but reinstating them if a performer requests them.

“One line of thought I could implement is literally on a show-by-show basis… reaching out to the artists to say, ‘Mandates have been dropped. They booked the show because vaccinations and masks were required. What do you want to do?’” he said.

“It’s a crazy idea, but you have to consider the artists and what they’re comfortable with. That is the situation they are facing now.”

Many other theaters and performing arts venues will also continue to require vaccination certificates and masks.

The League of Chicago Theaters, which represents a “coalition of more than 60 performing arts venues and producers” across the region, said its theaters will continue to ask patrons to mask up and provide proof of vaccination while in some situations also accept negative tests.

Bruce Finkleman, managing partner of the group that operates the Empty Bottle, Thalia Hall and other venues, said he was still talking to staff about how to proceed if the mandates are lifted.

“Our line has been very similar for the whole thing, that is, we want to provide a safe place for the artists, our staff, and our customers,” Finkleman said. “So we continue to monitor what comes out with the mandates and make sure the CDC is putting out the same type of information. We want to make sure everyone feels safe returning to venues and continue to support live music.”

The decision to drop vaccination and mask mandates comes after a brutal few months for Chicago’s music venues, when the Omicron variant sent COVID-19 cases skyrocketing and kept many concert-goers at home.

Even when tickets for a show have sold well, guests often don’t show up, Gomez said. 50 percent of the viewers did not show up for the sold-out Subterranean New Year’s Eve show. Show cancellations and low ticket sales followed.

“January, February was absolutely awful,” Gomez said. “You don’t recover from that. Just because you’re moving a show from January to April, you would have had a different show in April. You never recover from that loss.”

Finkleman said his companies also “felt the heat” from Omicron. However, people are starting to come back and shows are on the books, which is “a positive,” he said.

As venues implement a patchwork of COVID-19 rules, Bauman encourages concertgoers to check the rules before going to a show and to be patient with venue staff.

“Everyone just has to make sure they respect the venue choices they make because those choices are really representative of making sure it’s as safe as possible for their particular venue and the musicians performing,” he said.

But as COVID-19 numbers have dropped and people are beginning to return to live performances, venue owners said the future of live music in Chicago is bright.

“I’m definitely optimistic that things will get better,” said Helmkamp. “We’re definitely not over the hill yet. But I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

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