As mask guidelines in North Carolina and Orange County are eased, concert venues across the state are grappling with their policies as well.
Starting March 7, masks became optional in public indoor spaces in Orange County, following an announcement at the Board of County Commissioners meeting on March 1. Businesses and other private organizations still have the discretion to require masks indoors.
Some venues, such as Cat's Cradle in Carrboro, are still requiring masks indoors. In addition, Cat's Cradle requires concert attendees to present their COVID-19 vaccination cards or proof of a negative test within the prior 72 hours, in addition to their ID.
Frank Heath, owner of Cat's Cradle, said in an email that one of the main reasons the venue has these requirements is because a full-standing music venue is a high-risk environment for COVID-19 spread.
"Sort of like with public transit, there is not a real easy way to stay six feet from everyone if you're going to enjoy a typical concert environment at Cat's Cradle," he said.
At Local 506, a music club in downtown Chapel Hill, masks are optional within the venue, but proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test within 72 hours of the event are required to attend events.
“We can’t take the risk of having a room full of unvaccinated people,” Robert Walsh, co-owner of Local 506, said. “It’s just better to be safe than sorry.”
At Nightlight Club in Chapel Hill, patrons are required to show proof of vaccination and wear a mask indoors. The venue's bar is open, but customers are required to drink outside or take their masks off only while actively drinking indoors.
Charlie Hearon, the general manager and part-owner of Nightlight, said in an email that the venue will be looking at COVID-19 indicators in the area to determine when to drop its mask requirement.
"Our goal is to do all we can to protect our staff, customers, and performers," Hearon said.
The COVID-19 community levels in both Orange and Durham counties are low, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data as of March 17, when it was last updated. Community levels are based on multiple factors, including hospital beds being used and total new COVID-19 cases.
The CDC recommends that people in communities with low COVID-19 levels stay up to date with vaccinations and get tested if they develop symptoms.
Some large-scale venues, such as the Durham Performing Arts Center, allow performers to decide whether event attendees will be required to wear masks. According to DPAC's website, guests will be advised about the mask policies before the event.
The Carolina Theatre, a venue in Greensboro, also has COVID-19 safety requirements that can vary by event. The venue asks that patrons verify individual show requirements prior to attending.
The venue no longer requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for any event.
Brian Gray, executive director of the Carolina Theatre, said he believes the shift toward unmasked events is a good one.
“My perception of the general public is that a lot of them are pretty much over this,” he said. “... So it’s just a general comfort level for the community getting back now.”
Chessa Rich, a musician based in Durham, said that performers are more likely to request that patrons wear masks to their shows, especially in more compact local venues. This is due to the impact that getting COVID-19 would have on their tour schedules and income.
"If you're going on a tour, and three of your shows get canceled?" Rich said. "You basically are losing money on the tour, like you lost crucial income."
Heath echoed this sentiment. He said in an email that many of the bands who play at Cat's Cradle require masking or vaccination for staff and audiences.
“This is mainly because if anyone on a tour does get sick, they have to end their tours and/or cancel shows,” he said.
Victoria Jackson, a UNC student, attended her first concert last week at the Bojangles Coliseum. She and her brother both wore masks, though they were not required for patrons.
The majority of other concertgoers though, Jackson said, weren’t masked.
"Almost everyone around us wasn't wearing one, which did make me feel kind of like it was pointless to wear mine," she said.
As COVID-19 remains a concern for patrons, artists and business owners, the return to normalcy at concerts is punctuated by an underlying thread of concern for safety.
The return to concerts is more than a return to normal for Rich — it’s a necessity.
“Those are moments that we need as society, to be present with each other and experience art being made in the moment,” Rich said. “That’s a really big deal.”
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