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Texas and Mississippi Say It’s Time to Reopen Without Masks. Live Venues Say No Thanks

Rolling Stone logo Rolling Stone 3/5/2021 Jim Beaugez
a sign on the side of a building © Charles Reagan Hackleman for Rolling Stone

When Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Tate Reeves of Mississippi both rescinded statewide mask mandates this week and declared their states were reopening at full capacity, the news caught live music venues in both states off-guard. It also left them with a decision to make: follow their governors’ rosy decrees or maintain the Covid-19 safety protocols they’ve had in place for months.

Despite Abbott and Reeves’ enthusiasm — “I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING,” Abbott tweeted on March 2nd; “It is time!” Reeves followed — the majority of club owners and operators Rolling Stone spoke to in Texas and Mississippi are choosing to remain cautious, adhering to proven pandemic safety guidelines so that a night on the town doesn’t become a super-spreader event.

The Far Out Lounge and Stage in south Austin, Texas — which had closed its indoor seating during the pandemic and built an outside bar and performance space, cutting its capacity from a few thousand to 400 — will continue to require masks, temperature checks, and social distancing. Gov. Abbott’s announcement came as a surprise to the venue’s talent buyer Lawrence Boone.

“The majority of people in my world were like, ‘What the f*** are you doing?’ Like, ‘Don’t do that right now, we’re starting to make some progress,’” Boone tells Rolling Stone. “No one in our world, outside of maybe a few, a vocal minority, wanted this to happen. We were just starting to figure out how to make some headway.”

ACL Live — the downtown Austin theater that’s also home to the long-running music series Austin City Limits — isn’t changing the way it’s been doing business either. “ACL Live will maintain current Covid protocols, which include reduced capacity, social distancing, and wearing masks while not seated. Safety of staff, bands, and patrons remains our #1 priority,” Colleen Fischer, the theater’s GM, told Rolling Stone in an email.

Zach Ernst, the talent buyer for Austin’s venerable blues club Antone’s, says they have a commitment to fans who pre-purchased tickets to safely arranged concerts, and to the artists themselves, some of whom have already reached out to Ernst about the venue’s plans.

“I did hear from some artists who wanted to confirm, ‘Hey, we’ve got a show coming up. We want to keep it at your 20% capacity set-up.’ Artists and our staff and the patrons, I don’t think any of them are gunning for us to change anything right now,” Ernst says. “Particularly in Austin, there is a demand for these reduced-capacity, reserved-seating shows. That’s what the patrons are looking for and that’s what artists want to do.”

“Even if we were able to operate at 100% that doesn’t mean we actually would be that busy. People just weren’t coming out” — Dallas club owner

Kim Finch owns three bars and venues in Dallas, including the Double Wide, which suffered a series of burst water pipes during the recent Texas storm. She says her clubs will continue to follow safety guidelines and doesn’t expect a spike in business, even in light of Gov. Abbott giving Texans the green light.

“Even if we were able to operate at 100% that doesn’t mean we actually would be that busy,” she says. “People just weren’t coming out and I’m not sure this will change people’s comfort level now.”

Midland, the popular country trio, have a series of socially distanced concerts scheduled at minor-league baseball parks in Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Amarillo, in March and April. Brandon Bissell, the president of Ballpark Music, the company that produces the shows, says the well-being of fans remains paramount.

“We sold a lot of tickets already. Those fans entrusted their safety to us, under these guidelines, under this format, and if we were to change, all that falls apart. They’re not going to be happy with us if we remove all those safeguards,” Bissell says. “We’re not out of the woods yet [with the pandemic], but we’re so close. We all see the finish line, so let’s not throw all the progress out the window.”

Texas officially rescinds its mask mandate and reopens for business on March 10th, but Mississippi set aside its Covid restrictions on March 3rd. So far, many venue operators in the Magnolia State aren’t willing to risk the health of their staffs or patrons.

Scott Caradine, owner of Proud Larry’s in Oxford, a college-town bar that hosts national acts, plans to stay the course with socially distanced shows and masks, at least until Covid vaccines become more widely available and administered. “Until all Mississippians are eligible for vaccination, our plans and policies will not change,” he wrote in an email.

For some owners, the void of leadership at the state level creates confusion among local governments, business owners, and patrons about what exactly is permissible. In Jackson, Mississippi, city leadership is still struggling to get city water services online after a winter storm damaged infrastructure more than two weeks ago.

“At this point in time we’ve not heard back from the mayor, who has the capability of overriding the governor on certain things,” says Arden Barnett, owner of Duling Hall, a 400-capacity venue in Jackson. “But I’m still of the mindset that there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things, and a responsible way to do things. I’m not going to open up Duling Hall to 100% capacity. No.”

Without the backing of their states’ highest offices, some owners have expressed concerns about their ability to enforce mask-wearing and social distancing with potentially hostile patrons.

“This is a politicized thing now, and they feel empowered by what the governor said, which puts our staff in a very dangerous position [of] asking someone to put on a mask when they don’t feel they have to,” says Pedro Carvalho, owner and operator of Austin’s Far Out. “What changes now is people’s moxie and this collective idea that we don’t need masks because now the governor is saying so. It makes them more combative when it was already pretty difficult. It was a non-political issue, but now…it becomes almost a battleground to be a part of.”

To compound matters, lease amendments made as a concession to businesses that couldn’t open at 100% capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions could be revoked by landlords. Carvalho — who says both sides “are kinda screwed in this,” since landlords are often at the mercy of banks that own their mortgages — is concerned that if they’re legally able to open at 100% in the state’s eyes, then they will become responsible for 100 % of their lease payment again.

In Mississippi, Barnett has already gotten that call. “My landlord has been very gracious and forgiving of the way things are, but it comes to ‘business is business’ and the banks I’m sure are crawling on him, and in turn, we get phone calls,” he says. “But if it came down to it, and I would hope that it never does, if he says, ‘You have to open up to 100%,’ I couldn’t do it.”

Barnett’s reasoning is part personal ethics, part logistical reality: Even if he wanted to run Duling Hall wide open, he would be hard-pressed to book a band next weekend that would agree to play under those circumstances, and then convince his patrons to pack it out. “There aren’t tours out there that you can just snap your fingers and all of a sudden you’re selling out your club. And then, you’ve got the uphill battle of, ‘Do people feel comfortable enough?’”

In Fort Worth, Texas, however, at least one venue is taking its governor’s words to heart. The massive Billy Bob’s honky-tonk is slowly making changes to its safety protocols — an update on the venue’s website says masks are now optional for patrons. According to Marty Travis, the club’s general manager, masks are not required for staff either, unless they interact with the artists performing at Billy Bob’s. Country stars like Miranda Lambert, Thomas Rhett, and Midland are all set to appear at the club in the coming weeks.

“What we’ve done is say, ‘Hey, folks, we’re going to give you the choice. We would love to see you wear a mask; it’s smart for everybody right now,'” Travis tells Rolling Stone. “But I’m not going to enforce my staff to wear masks. I’m not going to enforce my guests to wear masks. It is the governor who has said, ‘Open our businesses up for 100%,’ right or wrong.”

Still, some fans aren’t happy with Billy Bob’s decision to go mask-optional. A spirited discussion on the venue’s Facebook page shows some ticket-holders uncomfortable with the changes to safety protocols and asking for refunds. The club confirmed to Rolling Stone that refunds will be made available.

Travis says he’s also experimenting with increasing capacity, beginning with concerts next week by Koe Wetzel, Aaron Lewis, and Kip Moore. While Billy Bob’s can hold 6,000 people, it’s been operating at a 2,500 cap. Travis will increase to 3,000, but he won’t go higher just yet, in the event that Covid cases spike again.

“We’re going to take…the safe, progressive way to do it,” he says. “We can handle 3,000, no problemo. I can’t handle 5,000 right now. I can’t handle 6,000 right now. I don’t have the staff and I don’t have the stones to risk if Governor Abbott’s a genius or an idiot.”

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