The live event industry fought hard to implement COVID-19 vaccine mandates and mask requirements in order to bring back shows, but with dropping cases and high inoculation rates, promoters and venue owners are steadily moving away from strict safety precautions.
When Coachella announced in February that it is dropping all COVID-19 safety restrictions for its upcoming event in April, it set the stage for the entire festival season to come. Coachella producer Goldenvoice, which also runs the country music-focused Stagecoach in the same location, said both Indio events would no longer require fans to show proof of vaccination, obtain negative COVID-19 tests prior to entering or need to wear masks.
Coachella — with headliners Harry Styles, Billie Eilish and Kanye West – was the first major festival to announce a loosening of COVID-19 safety restrictions, but live events across the country are slowly beginning to shift in the same direction.
As of March 7, indoor venues in New York City no longer need to require proof of vaccination from patrons after Mayor Eric Adams stated that high vaccination rates have significantly lowered community spread after the omicron surge this winter. “New Yorkers should be getting out and enjoying our amazing city,” Adams stated in a release. “The fight may not be over, but we’re clearly winning the war.” Coachella’s health and safety guidelines suggest the same: While COVID-19 cases are declining around the country, there’s still an inherent risk of exposure to contagious disease in any public place. “By entering the festival,” Coachella’s website states, “the attendees voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.”
Last August, independent venue owners and the world’s two largest promoters – Live Nation and AEG – began implementing vaccine requirements or other COVID-19 safety precautions at select shows despite hesitance from local or federal governments to do the same. The live music sector was at the forefront of the fight for vaccine mandates as a means to returning safely to an industry that was mostly shuttered for more than a year. Now, industry leaders are following local health departments in the opposite direction and loosening restrictions as the pandemic shifts into an endemic.
Now, the loosening of COVID-safety restrictions is relief for many in live music, including Brooklyn Bowl founder Pete Shapiro, who says he’s more than happy to drop vaccine requirements that caused extra security costs and may have been a deterrent for some fans hoping to attend shows.
“This makes a statement from the city and the department of health feeling comfortable with people being all together again,” Shapiro tells Billboard. “My gut is that most, if not all, venue owners will be happy to follow the city guidelines.”
For promoter Donnie Estopinal of Disco Donnie Presents, who works in various states and cities throughout the U.S., implementing COVID-19 safety measures has meant hiring extra security to check vaccines, COVID-19 sniffing dogs, onsite rapid testing, testing employees and more. Add those costs to slow ticket sales and high no-show rates of 20% and above, which have persisted throughout the past nine months, and promoters’ profit margins continue to decrease. “Running a show is hard enough,” he says. “Running a show with COVID restrictions is almost impossible.”
As more concerts and festivals are announced for 2022, producers and promoters are pivoting from firm demands for COVID-safety precautions to messages favoring flexibility. A statement from Danny Wimmer Presents (independent producer of rock festivals Aftershock, Louder Than Life, Welcome to Rockville and more), for example, indicates that “exact COVID-19 safety protocols will be shared closer to the event,” while Goldenvoice’s policy remains that “festivals and venues shall be presented in accordance with applicable public health conditions as of the date of the event and which may change at any time.” Goldenvoice and DWP declined to comment.
“If you put a festival on sale eight months in advance with all the current regulations, it could be changed three times before the festival happens,” says Estopinal, who believes the open-ended COVID-19 rules are how promoters will be able to move forward with ticket sales without eliminating fans who fall on either side of the vaccine debate.
Live music fans were encouraged to get vaccinated in order to hasten the return of live shows, but Shapiro adds that the number of fans who remain unvaccinated “is certainly more than zero.” He hopes the removal of the COVID-safety mandates will see a robust return to live music. “We’ve already seen a really good rebound, but we’re looking forward to having everyone back,” he says.