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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — As the Delta Variant continues its relentless spread through the population, primarily among the unvaccinated, the world of music performance is facing a nationwide crisis of confidence. 

Venues and performers alike are scrambling to maintain their Summer/Fall schedules, leading to difficult and controversial decisions. 

Beloved OKC institution Tower Theater announced this week that they will be requiring proof-of-vaccination or a negative test result from all attendees beginning September 8th.

Some acts are canceling their tour plans, blindsided by the recent new surge of the COVID delta variant.

“When originally planned, these shows were intended to be a cathartic and celebratory return to live music,” said Nine Inch Nails founder and frontman Trent Reznor on Twitter Thursday. “However, with each passing day it’s becoming more apparent we’re not at that place yet.”

That sad, disappointed sentiment came alongside word of Reznor’s decision to cancel all of his band’s remaining performances for the year.

Oklahoma legend Garth Brooks made the same announcement this week, stating “In July, I sincerely thought the pandemic was falling behind us. Now, watching this new wave, I realize we are still in the fight and I must do my part.” Ticketmaster will be refunding nearly 400,000 tickets to Brooks’ remaining shows.

Controversial, informed decision

In order to avoid not only the logistical headaches of rescheduling and refunding, but also the massive, guaranteed financial loss, the management of Tower Theater has made the informed, yet still controversial, decision to begin requiring all guests to provide proof-of-vaccination or a negative COVID test. 

Even expecting the inevitable backlash, they said that it was an easy choice after looking at their upcoming slate.

“The industry is shifting,” says Tower’s managing partner and talent buyer Chad Whitehead. “Watching some tours lead the way, they were moving to vaccine-required already.”

Whitehead is quick to point out that since reopening and restarting concerts at the Tower, the management has left it up to the performers and touring acts themselves to decide if they wanted to require vaccines at their individual shows. After reviewing the theater’s near-future schedule, it was clear that nearly all of the upcoming acts were already preferring to require all attendees to show proof of vaccination. 

Tower Theatre
Tower Theatre operators Stephen Tyler (L) and Chad Whitehead explain their next phases of business recovery from the pandemic 5-6-21. (BRETT DICKERSON/Okla City Free Press)

While that decision has been met with protests and controversy across the country, artists and venues consider it a stop-loss measure to prevent the spread from completely shuttering their businesses once again.

“Last year there was only one pivot the industry could make, and that was to go dark and to cancel,” Whitehead explains. “Now, with the vaccine in place, there are two pivots: you can go vaccine-required, or you can go dark again. We won’t go dark. We can’t, at least not without a fight. So this is us trying to fight for the calendar and fight for our staff.”

As one of the lucky venues that have received direct funding from the Small Business Association’s Shuttered Venues Operator Grant (SVOG) coming in at just over $1.4 million, the Tower acknowledges that they have a responsibility to proceed safely and carefully for the sake of their clients and customers.

”One of our guiding philosophies is that we’re in the hospitality business, and we are committed to being good neighbors,” Whitehead says. “Those things play out a hundred different ways.”

Other OKC venues silent

Though Whitehead is adamant that the greater music industry is heading in the direction of requiring vaccines, not every venue is so quick to make such an announcement, or even to comment on the issue publicly. 

Attempts to discuss health and safety precautions or vaccine requirements with comparably-sized OKC venues The Criterion and Diamond Ballroom resulted in no response or return contact. It is currently unknown if they are considering a similar move to proof-of-vaccination. 

The owners and management companies for both venues also received significant funding from the SVOG, with over $2.4 million going to Criterion owners Levelland Productions and more than $2.8 million for Diamond Ballroom managers DCF Enterprises.

Reactions to Tower decision

Public response to Tower Theater’s announcement has so far been very much in line with what Whitehead said he was expecting. 

A look through the numerous comments on the Instagram post announcing the policy (nearly 600 at the time of this writing) shows overwhelming support from the vast majority of patrons and performing artists, with a small-but-vocal minority decrying unsubstantiated claims of “government control” and “violation of privacy.”

One local artist sitting firmly within that supportive majority is Steve Boaz. As the drummer for the band Sisteria, Boaz is gearing up for a spot on the Tower stage on September 18th in support of Rainbows Are Free. He is also the recipient of a double lung transplant due to cystic fibrosis and is on a daily regimen of immunosuppressant medication. This places him among the very highest risk groups for COVID.

Boaz says that Tower’s initiative is allowing him some small comfort as he begins his return to the stage.

“When our elected officials won’t take action to protect people with disabilities, it’s comforting to see small businesses do what they can to absorb that responsibility,” Boaz said. “Anytime I’m around anyone, there’s some risk, but requiring vaccinations mitigates that risk significantly enough to where me, my friends, and my family can sleep a little better in the following days after the show.”

No word yet on the number of ticket refund requests that Tower Theater has seen since the announcement if any. There have been no performer cancellations related to the new policy.

Last Updated August 20, 2021, 11:56 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor