Earlier this week, Governor Greg Abbott announced that he was lifting state mandates on mask wearing as well as capacity limits on gatherings. The move brought criticism from public health officials as well as the Biden administration, which called it “Neanderthal thinking.” Currently, Harris County remains under red alert due to the high number of COVID-19 cases, including all four of the known mutations.
Performance venues also reacted with horror at Abbott’s re-opening, and it looks like they will not be pretending that the danger has passed.
“We don’t give two shits what Abbott says, we’ll stop enforcing masks when it’s safe to do so,” said the official Facebook page for Neil’s Bar, which hosts gaming tournaments and the occasional electro-pop band. “PLEASE still show up to Houston businesses with your mask ready! It’s about slowing the spread and protecting others.”
Their frustration was echoed by DJ Wes Wallace, the long-serving music master at Numbers who has spent most of the quarantine running livestreams that bring the Classic Numbers nights to people at home.
“Unbelievable. NO ONE wants to open more than us,” said Wallace on Facebook. “No one. But this is not the time. Let's not screw this up AGAIN please.”
Within hours of Abbott’s announcement, Brian Arthur, the owner of Super Happy Fun Land, said he was already fielding calls from people wanting to book the space for full capacity parties complete with DJs and no masks. Arthur, who like many independent venues has been struggling to stay afloat during the quarantine
, has turned them down. Still, with bills to be paid, the opportunity to get more business is tempting.
“I don’t think it is safe right now for [our maximum capacity] to be at a performance, especially if they are not wearing masks,” he says. “We have been doing a few events here the past few months at 25 percent capacity. This gives people a lot of space to spread out and our building has very high ceilings... People still bunch up, it is pretty hard to enforce social distancing, but at least people have the option to distance, which many people do practice while they are here. We require masks for entry, and again it is hard to enforce making them wear them during the entire event, but everyone who comes in is going to have to at least have a mask. Depending on how the vaccine rollout progresses I am figuring on going to half capacity in April and hopefully back to full capacity in May.”
Arthur also said that at least one lead singer of a band he knows of has suggested having a mask burning party.
Fans of live theater aren’t likely to see much difference under Abbott’s new rules. The Actor’s Equity Association has no plans to lift restrictions under the current environment, which severely limits the amount of union performances that can occur and in what format. With scientific consultation from Dr. David Michaels, epidemiologist at George Washington University and former head of OSHA, they have approved 30 performances in Texas over the course of the pandemic, but normalcy is still a long way off.
“Moving forward, the governor’s announcement does not change the fact that vaccination rates remain low in the country and theatre has very particular risks that other industries do not,” says spokesman Brandon Lorenz. “Workers in the theater cannot socially distance throughout their workday, for example. We will continue to collaborate with theaters to ensure they have appropriate safety plans to protect workers and audience members alike. Any Equity producers who are looking to begin work should contact their Equity business representative for more information about safety protocols.”
Theatre Under the Stars has none of their classic big budget musicals scheduled until August, and Broadway at the Hobby Center is running virtual performances until this summer.