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Austin joins national pilot program exploring how to safely reopen music venues

Friday, August 7, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

Austin has signed up as a pilot city for a national effort to establish guidelines for music venues looking to reopen safely once the public health threats from the Covid-19 pandemic are lessened.

Today the city will announce its partnership with the Reopen Every Venue Safely best-practices guide, which outlines the dozens of steps music venues, event producers and other entertainment entities can take to keep staff, patrons and entertainers safe. The guide is a product of Music Cities Together, which is led in part by Don Pitts, the former head of the city’s Music and Entertainment Division.

The recommended steps are divided into price impact and the various cohorts of individuals present in a live event setting. Some examples include planning and having performers agree to a socially distanced stage plot, use of sanitation stations and cleaning supplies, implementing contact tracing technology, and establishing set policies for staff regarding use of safety masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment.

Higher-cost options include upgrading airflow and filtration systems, investing in deep cleaning equipment, making restrooms as low-touch as possible, and removing automated teller machines.

The best-practices guide won’t influence any regulatory or permitting policies in the near term, but could play a role in larger frameworks for managing public health in the future.

Bobby Garza, a former policy adviser at City Hall and a member of the national leadership of Music Cities Together, said music venue owners across the country have spent the past five months worrying about staying in business and haven’t had time to consider long-term steps for operating safely.

“There’s generally been a disconnect between venue owners and city leadership that hasn’t really been solved, and our goal was to provide some translation on both sides to help understand what the solutions could be,” he said.

“These business owners have to do a financial analysis of whatever these things are to figure out what it is they can afford to do. The reality is we know there are going to be spin-up costs to reopening and these best practices are a list of everything so you can pick the things you can actually do, because some of this isn’t going to work for small venues.”

The city’s music division and its Entertainment Services Group are among the entities that have offered input on the guide. Garza, who is also a member of the city’s special events task force, said the safety guidelines will also be helpful for festivals and event promoters, though their relaunch is not expected to happen in a major way until 2022.

“Some of the smart things in that guide will be things that event producers will absolutely want to consider,” he said. “Where the definition becomes a little less clear is if you’re trying to pop up an event in the middle of a field, then your ability to control existing infrastructure is zero. There’s some freedom in how you create an experience that way but there’s also some vague non-definitions, especially since event producers don’t have any idea when they’ll be able to have events in the foreseeable future.”

Cody Cowan, executive director of the Red River Cultural District and former general manager of the Mohawk music venue, said the guide will act as a menu of possible steps that will allow venue owners to evaluate and price out before making the decision to reopen.

“This idea that we can roll our sleeves up and DIY public health is insane,” he said. “We cannot go through the idiotic motions of opening and closing, opening and closing and pretend that we can wish this all away. We’ve got to be serious about doing the math and all the hard work. This is a shot across the bow locally for folks who think they can put a bottle of hand sanitizer at the front door, check the box and say ‘We win.'”

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Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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