Local music venues feeling déjà vu as COVID restrictions roar back

Once more the COVID pandemic is upending winter plans for presenting live music to audiences and venue owners who just want a return to mask-less days and a time when fear wasn’t part of listening to tunes.

Various area venue operators said that they are meeting with staff to look at how to both operate safely and host live music as Gov. Dan McKee imposed new requirements Monday for wearing masks while indoors.

“I hope the government knows much more about this than I do. It’s a law. I’ll follow it. I just want it all to just go away,” said Mariann Almonte, executive director of the Courthouse Center for the Arts in West Kingston.

For larger indoor venues (with a capacity of 250 or more), masks will be required for all attendees regardless of vaccination status.

For smaller indoor venues (with a capacity of under 250) — including restaurants, retailers and venues of assembly — each individual establishment can require either mandatory masks for all or mandatory proof of having been fully vaccinated with masks only for individuals who fail to show proof of vaccination.

Screening at Door

Almonte said that she will need to hire someone now — if a volunteer isn’t available — to screen people at the door for vaccination cards. After COVID-19 restrictions loosened months ago, people returned to this music site without masks or wore them only if comfortable with them.

Her venue has a capacity under 250, she said, so it means right now that those vaccinated won’t need them, yet they will need proof they’ve had their vaccine, while those avoiding the treatment will need to wear masks.

“I have already had people tell me they’ll see me when all these restrictions are gone,” she told The Independent. “They said, ‘We’re against the vaccine, we don’t have to show you our vaccine card. It’s none of your business.’”

That kind of strong reaction is not usual, but another reaction – fear of catching the virus even among the vaccinated – is becoming more usual.

She said that for performances this past weekend people started canceling right after the governor’s mid-week announcement of another mask mandate.

Almonte said she cannot afford to lose customers because the ticket revenue for events – continued to be scheduled through next year – helps to keep her razor-thin bottom line from sinking into the red.

Not far away in Peace Dale, Dan Collins, owner of Pump House Music Works, which also frequently holds live music performances, said that he and his staff as of Monday began requiring both a vaccine card and a mask for all performances.

“It’s crazy out there right now,” said Collins, noting that his venue wants to put the most protection possible without closing. So, those attending a performance will be required to both be vaccinated and wear a mask, he added.

His venue sits under the 250-capacity for which masks are required, but he wants to take extra steps both for those attending as well as the bands coming to his venue.

“A lot of the bands that have come have asked us to have the audience put on masks,” Collins added.

Proof of vaccination will be required for all people entering Pump House Works and an accompanying state-issued identification card, such as a driver’s license, will be needed to support the identity on the vaccine card.

The state does not require proof of identity, but Collins said he wants to take the extra step.

Almonte said she doesn’t know yet whether she will required proof of identity to match the name on the vaccine card.

Attendance Drop

Both venue operators also noted that they have seen in recent weeks a downturn in the number of people coming to performances. Both attribute it to growing concerns and fears about catching any variants or mutated forms of COVID-19.

In addition, warnings from state and federal health officials are also affecting people’s decision to be in close public gathering places, they said.

Kevin Finnegan, owner of the Ocean Mist in Matunuck, also a music venue as well as a restaurant, said he plans to keep his capacity under 250 and will require people to wear masks if not vaccinated.

Others will need to show proof of vaccination.

Finnegan said that bands playing to large audiences are not routine in the winter – in contrast to summer performances at his beach bar on Matunuck Beach Road – and he may even cancel a planned performance of one band that draws large numbers of people.

These new rules are required for workers and patrons of restaurants, gyms, entertainment venues and other indoor public places. There are some limited exemptions listed on the state Department of Health website.

The state said that individuals can demonstrate proof of vaccination by showing a CDC vaccination card, a printed copy or digital photo of a CDC vaccination card or vaccination record.

In addition, they can show a record through the 401Health app (expected to be released soon), or SMART Health Cards issued outside of Rhode Island, such as New York State’s Excelsior Pass and Excelsior Pass Plus.

The new mandate started Monday, and remains in effect for 30 days, when it will be re-evaluated. Some venue operators said that they expect even more tightening — not less — in a month if COVID-19 infections rise as predicted.


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