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Milwaukee venues urge vaccinations, but most are stopping short of requiring them for now

Music and entertainment venues have been hit especially hard by the pandemic. As Pabst Theater Group CEO Gary Witt has explained frequently over the last year and a half, venues were the first to close after Covid-19, and the last to reopen. Many independent venues have survived by the skin of their teeth, holding out hopes that high vaccination rates and pent-up demand for live entertainment might bring some relief this fall.

They're less optimistic about that now than they were just a few weeks ago. The last month has brought an avalanche of dispiriting news on the Covid-19 front -- about lagging vaccination rates, about the delta variant and about the possible return of some Covid-19 restrictions much of the country had hoped were in the rear view.

The news hasn't slowed the return of live music yet, but it has started to ripple through the industry. Last week Bright Eyes announced that they were canceling several indoor shows on their current tour out of caution and respect for immunocompromised family members. Japanese Breakfast announced that she will require face masks and vaccinations (or proof of a recent negative Covid-19 test) for all attendees at her shows; a growing handful of other touring acts are starting to adopt similar policies.

The Riverside Theater marquee | Courtesy Pabst Theater Group

The worsening situation puts music venues in particular in a bind. Enacting vaccine requirements or face-mask policies risks alienating some attendees, who can be vocal about their opposition. But there's a risk in being too lax, too: Most of the country is now fully vaccinated, and if vaccinated concertgoers begin to see attending shows with unvaccinated people as a safety risk, they might put off returning to concerts, particularly indoor ones.

It's a bigger problem than any one venue can solve, but it will force every venue to make some difficult decisions that are bound to make at least some people unhappy. And given the unlikelihood of state- or city-mandated vaccine requirements, at least for now, venues are left to follow their own instincts and moral compasses -- and bear the consequences -- at a moment when best public-safety practices are less clear than they've been since the very beginning of the pandemic.

This morning Milwaukee's Cactus Club became one of the city's first major venues to announce it will require proof of vaccines for all attendees and performers. "Our first priority is to be an accessible, welcoming space that centers the safety and well-being of the many communities we’re a part of and serve," the venue posted on Facebook. "This is an incredibly tricky time for us as a venue that brings people together. ... Please be patient and respectful to staff as we navigate these constantly evolving circumstances. If you’ve purchased an advanced ticket and can no longer attend, we are happy issue full refunds."

Cactus Club's new vaccine policy

Other venues will no doubt be looking to Cactus as a canary as they navigate the situation themselves. The Pabst Theater Group has been vocal about advocating for vaccines as the best way to save lives and ensure the return of live music. The Riverside Theater marquee even featured a message simply saying "Get Vaccinated... Please."

But outside of a handful of shows that have requested enhanced safety requirements (Bully, Japanese Breakfast and Valley Maker), the Pabst venues are not currently requiring proof of vaccination.

"The Pabst Theater Group requests that customers comply with all CDC guidelines relating to masks," a representative for the venues said. "Certain events, however, may have enhanced safety requirements relating to vaccinations, testing or masks based on artist requests, local guidelines or other outstanding conditions."

The Milwaukee Repertory Theater has taken a similar stance. In a statement, Executive Director Chad Bauman is blunt about the need for vaccines. "It is clear that there is only one way to bring the Covid-19 pandemic to an end – and that is to get vaccinated," he wrote. "To create the safest possible environment for our staff and artists, we have mandated that all employees be vaccinated and we currently have a 100% vaccinated workplace."

But it remains to be seen whether the Rep will require vaccines for its audience members as well. Bauman says that policy is undecided. The organization still has some time to figure things out; its first performance isn't scheduled until Oct. 29.

Other venues will have to make some tough decisions much sooner, including Summerfest, which kicks off its three-weekend run in less than a month. Many venues contacted for this article did not respond when asked if they were considering vaccination policies; this is not something they love talking about. Other venues that did respond said that they are staying flexible, and will change their policies in accordance with state of local guidelines if necessary.

Whatever they decide, go easy on them. It's been a rough 17 months for these venues, and it's becoming painfully clear that they still have some long months ahead.