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Proof of Vaccination is the Ticket to Concerts in Northeast Ohio This Fall

"Japanese Breakfast" at The Agora Aug. 5
Brittany Nader
The Agora had its first in-person concert after more than a year Aug. 5. "Japanese Breakfast" performed for a masked crowd. Attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entering the venue.

Music venues across Northeast Ohio have opened their doors for concerts this summer after more than a year of silence.

Some local clubs have eased back into normal operations, hosting smaller, limited-capacity shows, while others have fully returned to business as usual.

Concerts in the fall will require compliance with new guidelines that were developed this month.

On Aug. 18, more than a dozen venues across Cleveland, Akron and Youngstown announced they would require that attendees show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 48 hours of entering their doors.

The policy, which will go into effect Sept. 7, was publicized just a few days after AEG Presents and Live Nation announced similar guidelines for concerts starting Oct. 4. AEG Presents runs shows for The Agora, while Live Nation operates concerts at House of Blues, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica and Blossom Music Center.

The independent venues banding together to create and enact their own policies come from months of working together to stay afloat during the pandemic.

“We don’t want to go back to that dark place we were last year. We want to move forward as best possible,” said Jill Bacon Madden, owner of Jilly’s Music Room.

Keeping the doors open 

Jilly’s is one of the local music clubs that’s been part of the National Independent Venue Association that formed in 2020.

Bacon Madden has been actively working with others in the local music community to help keep venues open long term.

The forced shutdowns during the pandemic created financial hurdles and uncertainty about the fate of theaters, concert halls and bars.

She said shutting down again is not an option.

Enforcing proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID-19 test, is the only way to stay open since Ohio will not be rolling out additional mandates related to masks or capacity limits, she said.

“It’s going to be a struggle for a while. We all know that, but hopefully we’ll get through it and be stronger for it,” Bacon Madden said.

On the Jilly’s Facebook post announcing the new policy, most of the 48 total comments were supportive. Others were less favorable, calling the guidelines “stupid” and “shameful.”

Bacon Madden said she hadn’t received any refund requests for concerts at Jilly’s yet, but she said she anticipates “those will come.”

Extra staff will be at the club entrance checking vaccination cards or negative COVID-19 tests, along with IDs.

Bacon Madden said she hopes to begin using an app called Bindle by the time the policy is in place in early September to check vaccination cards or test results. Bindle is a digital wallet for health records, including proof of COVID-19 vaccination.

“The venue can flash a QR code on their phone, and the person’s picture and green circle and checkmark comes up if they’re cleared to go,” she said. “So it’s even easier for people.”

Venues already moving toward new guidelines

Some Northeast Ohio venues have already started checking vaccination cards or proof of negative COVID-19 tests for select shows.

On Aug. 5, The Agora hosted its first concert in more than a year. Japanese Breakfast and Mannequin Pussy performed. Ticketholders were informed that masks must be worn inside the venue, and they need to present their vaccination cards or proof of a negative COVID-19 test before entering.

"It’s going to be a struggle for a while. We all know that, but hopefully we’ll get through it and be stronger for it."
Jill Bacon Madden

AEG stated these policies were at the artist’s request. Refunds could be issued to attendees who did not wish to follow this protocol, according to an email from AEG.

While there was a line of people waiting to have their proof of vaccination of negative test checked, staff moved quickly to verify everyone’s information and give out wristbands to confirm they may enter.

Phoebe Bridgers added a stop in Cleveland to her 2021 Reunion tour after shuffling locations of her upcoming concerts. The musician announced she would play outdoor venues exclusively and require only proof of vaccination to attend the concert at Jacobs Pavilion Sept. 29.

The Kent Stage alerted the public Aug. 24 that individuals who are not vaccinated against COVID-19 should wear masks to concerts at the venue. Concertgoers will also receive temperature checks upon entry.

According to an email signed by “The Kent Stage Staff,” two upcoming concerts will require proof of complete vaccination or a negative PCR testwithin 72 hours preceding the show. Masks must also be worn throughout both concerts, except when eating or drinking.

These guidelines will be enforced for the Ani Difranco and Elizabeth Moen show Aug. 27 and the Patty Griffin concert Sept. 4.

“Each day brings something new in our responses to the virus. With that being said, when artists must do something to ensure the safety of themselves by moving a show, or adding extra requirements, we must abide by those requests,” the email states.

Tommy Lehman Quintet performed at Musica in downtown Akron on Aug. 19 a day after the venue announced it would require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for shows effective the week of Sept. 5.
Brittany Nader
Tommy Lehman Quintet performs at Musica in downtown Akron Aug. 19, a day after the venue announced it would require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for shows effective the week of Sept. 5.

Staying unified as music industry professionals

Bacon Madden said music venues have to be proactive and take a unified stance to keep their doors open during times of uncertainty.

One way leaders in the regional music community have kept communication and collaboration alive during the pandemic is social media.

Lisa Claus, who was born and raised in Cleveland, is the president ofLC Media LLC and founded the Cleveland Music Industry Facebook group in 2020. The group, which has more than 2,000 members, was created to unite all entities involved in Cleveland’s music industry. It has served as an information hub and a communal gathering place for those with music careers.

When shutdowns occurred in 2020, Claus said it was important to create a central place where people in the local entertainment industry could find resources, support, connections and opportunities online.

"Because they travel city to city, state to state, if one of them gets COVID, it could shut the whole thing down for them. They cannot risk it at all.”
Lisa Claus

She said there’s been a sense of unity among performers, producers, venue owners and others during the pandemic.

“There’s a lot of connections going on behind the scenes, a lot of collaboration, a lot of support,” Claus said. “Everybody is getting to know people they didn’t know before.”

She said the members of her Facebook group have been supportive of the new policy among local, independent venues to require proof of vaccination or a negative test for all shows.

Accommodating national touring bands was a big concern she observed.

“Because they travel city to city, state to state, if one of them gets COVID, it could shut the whole thing down for them,” Claus said. “They cannot risk it at all.”

Claus has managed artists and worked outside of Cleveland for years in other music cities across the country. She is working to help Cleveland become a true destination spot for music and find its identity in this way.

Her work outside the city gave her perspective on what local venues and industry professionals need to do to make it work.

Making an aligned decision to create and enforce COVID-19 safety guidelines is “the reality” people must recognize if they want concerts to resume.

“If we want people to tour [and] if we want bands to come here, this is what we need to do,” she said.

The hesitant return to concerts 

Since the pandemic started, Annie Zaleski, Cleveland-based music author, editor and journalist, has not attended an in-person show.

“I’m just still too wary right now. Just because you can still get [COVID-19], even if you’re vaccinated,” Zaleski said. “I have friends who have breakthrough COVID. So it just feels too risky right now.”

But Zaleski has tickets to see Steve Wynn at Blue Arrow Records Sept. 5. She said she feels comfortable going because she’ll wear a mask, and the crowd won’t be shoulder-to-shoulder.

She said she tuned in to several live-stream concerts during the pandemic and is disappointed that these virtual concerts are fading out.

“It’s just frustrating because I don’t think it needs to be a binary,” Zaleski said. “You could sell tickets to people around the world, and you’re basically getting money on top of that, too. You’re able to sell more tickets.”

She said while she understands artists make more money selling concert tickets and merchandise, offering a virtual performance option could help bring the music to fans who are still too nervous about attending shows or standing in crowded venues.

Zaleski said live streaming helps with accessibility, too. Music fans can enjoy a show where and how it works best for them without worrying about parking, finding a seat or seeing the stage.

Jilly’s is one venue that made use of modern technology to host concerts and stream them digitally to audiences who were stuck at home during the pandemic.

“While we were closed, we had the luxury of having cameras on tripods all over the room,” Bacon Madden said.

Bacon Madden said now that in-person concerts have resumed at Jilly’s, the logistics of running live-streaming shows have become a bit more challenging.

However, she’s working to adapt so fans can enjoy live music in the way that’s most accessible to them.

“We’re mounting our cameras to the walls, and [we’ll] set up a subscription with a nominal $5-a-month fee to see unlimited shows,” she said.

Claus said although the pandemic has been tiring and trying, people working in the music and entertainment industry should continue communicating and working together, even if they’re unable or not ready to resume their usual work.

“If some others are starting to do some shows, some people are choosing not to yet. People are putting out new music. They’re writing,” Claus said.

Support networks like the Cleveland Music Industry Facebook group and the National Independent Venue Association (NIVA) can help keep people connect and move forward with changes that help their industry thrive.

The complete list of Northeast Ohio venues that will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for all in-person events beginning Sept. 7 is below.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.