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Masks, vaccine mandates & amps: How independent venues are grappling with the return of crowds

Unmasking the venues

Technically, no venue in NYC was mandated to require people to be masked up this winter, even at the height of the surge. Although the state had a mask mandate for all indoor businesses, it was superseded by the NY HERO Act and the Key To NYC Pass. The former states that masks are required in all indoor spaces except where “all individuals on premise, including but not limited to employees, are fully vaccinated.” The latter requires that restaurants and entertainment venues ask for proof of vaccination to enter.

Of course, even for venue owners and managers who have been navigating the ever-shifting COVID rules of the city and state — whither the color-coded zones? — it has remained an arduous task sifting through the various edicts.

“I think that confusion is a direct result of having different rules for different parts of the city and the state and for different types of venues. If there was just one blanket rule across the state, we wouldn’t be having so much confusion,” said Kambri Crews, owner of Q.E.D. Astoria, a Queens community space which hosts comedy performances, screenings, political events and more. “It gets bogged down and confused. And then people use that confusion as willful ignorance to just do what they want.”

Deborah Gordon, who owns the legendary jazz club Village Vanguard, added, “Who can keep track of what they’re requiring, and not requiring, you know? In a way, I find it very hard to pay attention to it, especially when they make pronouncements that go into effect that day or the next day.”

Despite all this, many places actively chose to ask people to mask up when entering, which has yielded mixed results.

“You have to wear masks inside until you get to your table, and then, while you’re eating and drinking, of course we’re not requiring it,” said Dorf. “If there’s somebody who’s sitting at a table and they’re not actively eating, they’re drinking, we’re not going over to the table [to say], ‘Excuse me sir, I want to be a big asshole here and remind you, you got to put on a mask.’ We believe our customers are mature, and we respect them.”

A consensus has begun to form in the industry around masks: as effective as they might be, it is just not plausible for venues to enforce any mask policies once people are inside.

“Some venues really feel like they want to be seen as diligent, and they want their staff to be mindful of being diligent, so the masks are part of that,” said Jen Lyon, co-chair of the New York Independent Venue Association (NYIVA), which represents over 200 venues, independent promoters and festivals in the state. “But as far as getting guests to wear masks, the general consensus is it’s nearly impossible and would cost too much in staffing to get people to wear masks.”

Gordon, who took over running the Village Vanguard in 2018 after the passing of her mother Lorraine Gordon, said the Vanguard staff tries to encourage people to wear masks whenever possible, but there isn’t a lot to do beyond that. “Certainly some musicians ask people to be polite and cognizant and aware, sometimes musicians will announce that from the stage,” she said. “But we haven’t really been able to enforce that, we haven’t been the mask police…Anyway, what am I supposed to do, go around to every person after they have a sip of their drink, say you’ve got to put your mask back on? I mean, it’s just not feasible.”

After Hochul ended the state-wide mask mandate, NYC released their own FAQ to try to lay out all the various scenarios for business owners, noting they “strongly recommend” that everyone, vaccinated or not, wear a mask at public indoor settings, even when it’s not required. That’s the attitude that Jamie Burns, managing director of Boerum Hill experimental-music venue Roulette, has tried to take.

“Essentially, we’re asking people to wear masks but not making it a requirement to the extent that we would ask people to leave, or make people leave if they weren’t wearing them,” she said. She argues it isn’t reasonable to expect venues like theirs to shoulder the burden of regulating face coverings: “We don’t have security or bouncers. We have front of house staff, box office staff, bartenders and liaisons, and they’re not equipped to be policing it.”

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