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Arts & Culture

Pandemic Or Not, Live Music And Events Are Coming Back. Here's Austin's Plan To Keep Folks Safe.

Texas has, at least officially, reopened, and the idea of going back to concerts at once-crowded clubs or festivals like Austin City Limits aren't that far off, as more and more Austinites get vaccinated against COVID-19 and cases dwindle.

The city laid out a plan Friday on how that could look, unveiling minimum safety requirements and permitting guidelines for indoor and outdoor events, concerts, conventions, weddings and other activities.

The guide, which was developed by the city along with Austin Public Health, requires all events to have a safety coordinator to make sure best practices are followed, notify APH in the event of a positive COVID case and set up an isolation area for people who show symptoms of the virus.

For indoor events, much of the requirements are pretty simple: Make sure there's enough space for folks to maintain a 6-foot distance, have a floor plan with tables that allows separate parties to stay separate, and remind folks not to gather in one area. Convention center events and trade shows must direct foot traffic in one direction.

Organizers of outdoor events like ACL must submit safety plans outlining mandatory health screening and temperature-check protocols, sanitization plans and guidelines for employees and vendors.

The city called the plan a starting point, but Nakia Reynoso, founder and president of Austin Texas Musicians, said he wished the city got more input from musicians.

Shortly after the guidelines' release, he told KUT he felt the city didn't do enough outreach to working musicians who would be performing at venues.

"It's certainly not inclusive and considerate of the No. 1 most important population of workers to a live music venue: musicians," he said. "You can't have a live music venue without having live music played by musicians."

Reynoso called the plan "performative." He noted smaller clubs won't have room for isolation areas and that folks who could be COVID-positive shouldn't even be at shows in the first place.

"Do you know how hard it is to find space for gear and beer at a music venue in Austin? How are they expected to create an isolation room? If somebody is exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, how about they just don't come in?" he said. "How about they're asked to leave? We don't need to put them in an isolation room; they just need to not be there."

Sara Henry with the city's Development Services Department said the city needs the requirement and that it's got to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.

"Because we're in a pandemic and events are going to be able to happen again, we need [venues] to also be thinking about how you're going to be isolating people if they do, in fact, exhibit symptoms of COVID," she said. "Just like any other safety measure, this is just one more component of that. Do we want them to not be there? Of course. But what we have to do is plan for safety in the event that people show up anyway."

Henry said the city's been hashing out these guidelines with input from venue- and events-based groups, as well as musician and venue organizations like the Red River Cultural District. Still, she said people should reach out to the city if they feel they're not being heard.

"These guidelines are a starting point, and if there is anyone — an artist or anyone who doesn't feel that they're not represented or needs additional support — we would love to make sure they feel supported here," she said. "The idea is that we all can get back to where we're safe."

Reynoso said he hopes the process going forward is more collaborative and that he and members of Austin Texas Musicians want to work more closely with the city. He also said he hopes the city looks to grassroots efforts to safely bring back live music like the Red River Cultural District's Safe in Sound initiative, which has been adopted by nearly 50 venue and business owners.

In the announcement of the guidelines, the city also laid out a phased reopening of events at the Central Library, the Austin Convention Center and at parks. The city says the library will start allowing private events April 1 and the convention center has been given the go-ahead to start back up at 25% capacity. The city said it's still evaluating when parks, picnic areas and other event facilities can open back up.

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