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More California Music Venues Require Vaccinations, Negative COVID Tests for Entry

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Oakland DJ Lil Thow Wow says he supports music venues requiring proof of vaccines for entry as COVID cases continue to rise again. (Brandon "Beejus" Robinson)

Like most performing artists, Lil Thow Wow couldn’t wait to get back out there. The Oakland DJ, real name Jonathan Anabo, had to put a pause on gigs during the COVID-19 shutdown. Once he was fully vaccinated, and Governor Gavin Newsom lifted California’s restrictions in June, Anabo began spinning records at local bars and venues again.

But a wake-up call came earlier this month when he started feeling sick and tested positive for COVID-19. He knows of several other breakthrough cases among vaccinated people in his circle. Indeed, COVID cases are rising nationally and in the Bay Area.

Fully vaccinated people tend to experience fewer, less severe symptoms, and they typically don’t require hospitalization. Still, the trend has alarmed health experts, and California public health officials once again recommend masking, regardless of vaccine status, in all indoor public settings.

“Ever since they dropped the mask mandate and were more lax about it—I feel like they just did it too soon,” Anabo says of the state’s reopening in June.

Anabo is feeling better and has completed his doctor-recommended 10-day quarantine. But as the more contagious Delta variant continues to spread, he’s resolved to only play outdoor parties for the foreseeable future, and he supports the idea of bars and music venues requiring proof of vaccination for entry.

“I would encourage that. How can you be a business, especially a POC business, and you’re endangering your patrons, your workers?” he says, adding that he’s also sympathetic to the financial struggles small venues face. “What will you have left after everybody gets sick?”

Vaccination requirements for businesses has been a controversial topic since California lifted restrictions. In May, Oakland bar and music venue Eli’s Mile High Club became one of the first to require patrons to present vaccine cards at the door along with their IDs. And although the new policy was greeted with relief from many COVID-cautious customers, others slammed the bar on social media and even questioned its punk credibility.

Now, Eli’s seems to have been ahead of the curve. Experiences like Anabo’s are why the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance is now requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for indoor service at its 300 participating bars. And music venues and nightclubs like Rickshaw Stop, Oasis, F8, The Independent and Bill Graham Civic Auditorium are doing the same.

The San Francisco Venue Coalition (SFVC) and the California chapter of the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) haven’t yet adopted a formal position, but organizers say that most of their participating music venues are already either checking vaccine cards and negative COVID tests or are planning on doing so.

“It’s a very active, developing situation,” says Casey Lowdermilk, the assistant general manager of Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and an organizer with both SFVC and NIVA. Lowdermilk says he supports the San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance’s policy, and is working with other music venue leaders in San Francisco on an official statement.

“We are primarily public assembly experts at keeping people safe and healthy,” he adds, noting the way venues have nimbly adapted to threats of mass shootings in previous years. “And that’s not changing with this pandemic.”

Another Planet Entertainment, the San Francisco company that operates Bill Graham Civic Auditorium and several other prominent Bay Area venues, checked for vaccination status at a recent show at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre. “There was a very small, vocal group that had objections,” Lowdermilk says. “But I think the wide, wide majority of people get it. They like it.”

Dan Strachota, talent buyer at the Rickshaw Stop, says most customers appreciate that the venue requires proof of vaccine for entry. (Dirk Wise)

NIVA California lobbyist Alex Torres says many venues in Sacramento and Los Angeles are also starting to admit vaccinated patrons only. In fact, for some places, rather than hamper business, the policy has led to more ticket sales. “In the Northern California, Sacramento Valley region, it’s actually really helped pick up business for some of the local venues because of folks wanting to seek out a safe place to go to a show,” Torres explains.

That’s a hopeful sign for an industry still struggling from the financial fallout of the pandemic. Dan Strachota, talent buyer at the Rickshaw Stop, says he’s gotten pushback on the policy from a couple of talent agents and anti-vaxxers on Twitter. But for the most part, artists, workers and show-goers appreciate being in an all-vaccinated room.

After a year with no business, mounting debt and long-delayed federal aid, the last thing independent venues need is another shutdown, Strachota says. That means we all have a collective responsibility to mitigate the spread of the virus.

“We’re on a precipice again,” Strachota says. “And if we don’t get this done now we’re headed for another shutdown. We’ve gotten hope again. It’d be so horrible to see it dashed.”


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