Austin Resumes Indoor Concerts Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Tristan Kinnett

News broke out in late January that stand-up comedian Dave Chappelle had tested positive for COVID-19 and had to cancel the remaining shows he’d planned to perform at Stubb’s Amphitheater in Austin, TX. Stubb’s is an outdoor venue, but with Chappelle’s positive test, pictures of Chappelle with attending celebrities such as Grimes (who had mentioned testing positive for COVID-19 six days before) and the tangentially-related video that came out of southern rapper Bow Wow’s packed Houston performance the same weekend, some questions arose regarding how thoroughly safety protocols have been adhered to at open Austin venues.

Given that Texas’ state COVID-19 safety guidelines allow for venues (including indoor venues) to be open at limited capacity, it’s not surprising that certain venues throughout the state have elected to begin hosting concerts again. However, Austin is one of the Texan cities that has highly encouraged stricter precautions.

Chappelle began his residency at Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater on December 8. Half the dates were for “Dave Chappelle and Friends” and the other half were with podcast host Joe Rogan. As an outdoor venue, Stubb’s reports having socially distanced tables, rapid COVID-19 Antigen testing onsite and requires masks to be worn at all times. In order to prevent jokes from being leaked, Chappelle’s dates also require a strict no cell phone policy, which makes it harder to confirm how many attendees follow safety guidelines. 

One question that came up was to what extent VIP guests in attendance such as Donnell Rawlings, Elon Musk and Grimes had to hold up the same protocols. While Grimes had mentioned testing positive on January 10 and the stand-up performance was said to have happened on the 16, Rogan insists after a series of negative test results that he was not exposed to the person who Chappelle contracted COVID-19 from and is adamant that Grimes is not responsible for passing the virus to Chappelle. 

Once Chappelle recovered nicely from COVID-19, he announced he’d make up the five remaining shows each night from February 5-9. Now that Andrew Bird’s “My Finest Work Yet” tour stop on April 29 has been postponed, the next event Stubb’s has listed in their calendar after that is Khruangbin on May 6-7, which is far enough out that it’s likely to also be postponed if things haven’t opened up in Austin by then.

Out of the other popular music venues in Austin, only a couple have reopened over the past few months. ACL Live is one that’s been busy lately. Recent concerts date back to Sophia Johnson on January 27 and The Allman Betts Band’s January 29 shows, at least. The venue is said to be at limited capacity in compliance with state standards, and they say they require the appropriate employee temperature checks & health questionnaires, provide hand sanitizer and enforce mandatory requirements that guests wear masks whenever they aren’t seated at their socially distanced tables. There’s been no word yet from the venue or locals on how strictly the standards are enforced.

ACL Live has also managed to keep events lined up throughout February. Ruel Thomas had a show scheduled for February 10 and is set to return for a handful of Wednesday nights throughout March and April. He also announced he’d be playing dates at smaller venues like Idle Hands and Moontower Saloon. Henri Herbert was supposed to play February 17 and 24, HeartByrne rescheduled from February 20 to April 2 and three Robert Earl Keen dates that were meant to be Christmas shows were rescheduled for February 25-27. 

They’ve kept adding dates for March, with the Thomas dates being newly added, The Motts is set to appear on March 6 and 13, Billy Strings on March 26, Brian Regan on March 27-28 and Joe Bonnamassa on March 31 and April 1. There’s also a ‘Weekend of Weddings’ involving two-hour and 45-minute shotgun wedding options coming up in early March. April’s getting filled up too, including recognizable names like Kaleo and Purity Ring.

Antone’s is another venue that has had concerts since December 5, when Mike Cooley performed. The schedule shows that Gary Clark, Jr. was supposed to have played on December 20 and Jake Lloyd, Swimming with Bears and Billy Gibbons supposedly performed a New Year’s Eve event. Antone’s is also seated-only at socially-distanced tables and said to only be filled up to 20 percent capacity with masks required when guests aren’t seated.

Starting March 1, they’ve begun booking shows almost every night. Possibly due to the limited capacity, many of the shows are selling out. Kill Tony is said to be sold out for March 1, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s brother’s Jimmie Vaughan Trio is sold-out March 2 with a second night on March 3, Joshua Ray Walker is set for March 4, and the calendar continues at that frequency through March 13. There are some dates later in the month and early April too for Ian Neville, The James Hunter Six, Sue Foley, Taméca Jones, Cowboy Mouth and UGK’s Bun B.

According to Cedar Street Courtyard’s website, they’re also open with restricted hours (6 p.m. – 2 a.m. Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays). However, the events calendar has been removed from the site entirely so it doesn’t appear as though they’re hosting any shows.

As for popular venues that haven’t reopened yet, Barracuda is temporarily closed. The Continental Club is “closed until further notice.” Elephant Room is currently closed but in the practice of waiting to officially cancel and reschedule shows until a week or so before each planned performance date. The Historic Scoot Inn has also postponed all shows. The Mohawk Austin’s website says they’re open, but Twitter says they’re closed and no concerts are listed, so it’s more likely that they’re closed. The Skylark Lounge doesn’t currently have any upcoming events listed either. 

Something to consider is Texas’ COVID-19 safety guidelines. As of October 2020, bars throughout the state are allowed to open at 50 percent capacity as long as they enforce common COVID-19 safety protocols and stop serving alcohol by 11 p.m. It’s also noted that there is no occupancy limit for any outdoor seating that bars offer. The guidelines require bars to screen employees before entering, take steps to ensure seating is socially distanced and keep surfaces disinfected. Customers are required to wear masks whenever they’re not seated. These restrictions also apply to nightclubs, such as the Clé Nightclub that Bow Wow performed at. 

Fine arts performance halls are allowed to open at 75 percent capacity with mostly the same conditions. They must screen employees and ensure seating arrangements are socially distanced, as well as uphold various conditional regulations and consider other requirements such as making hand sanitizer available to guests. 

Austin’s current requirements are pretty much in line with the state’s requirements when it comes to live venues, even though stricter precautions are encouraged. However, restaurants and bars are “highly encouraged and recommended” to close indoor dining spaces and restrict outdoor seating capacity to 50 percent. Face coverings are required when individuals are in public and not engaged in eating or drinking, along with some other minor exceptions. While the city wants to keep people safe, they’re also interested in the reopening of any venues that can safely do so and have made safety suggestions available for venues wondering about best practices. 

Houston venues are a different story entirely, as evidenced by the backlash to Bow Wow’s Clé Nightclub performance, to which the rapper responded in a now-deleted tweet, “Man Texas is open. Atl is open. I can’t help I live in a city where we been open since last spring.” The nightclub only has a few other events listed, a Beso Latin Experience on Thursday nights and a Diplo set on March 28. However, they do not seem to have stopped having concerts for long during the pandemic if their calendar is accurate. There’s also no mention of COVID-19 restrictions on the website.

More venues are sure to open now that Texas’ Governor Greg Abbott has announced plans to lift restrictions across the state starting on March 10. Abbott acknowledged on March 2 that “Covid has not suddenly disappeared,” but commented that he didn’t believe that the state mandates were still necessary. “It is now time to open Texas 100 percent,” he stated.


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