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At Ottobar, Staffers Say Masking And Proof Of Vaccination Lets The Music Go On

Masked concertgoers at Ottobar. The independent venue has a mandatory masking policy and patrons must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in order to enter.
Emily Sullivan/WYPR
Masked concertgoers at Ottobar. The independent venue has a mandatory masking policy and patrons must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test in order to enter.

When Al Hesichman checks IDs at Ottobar these days, he also asks for proof of vaccination.

Live music stopped at the midsize, independent Remington club, now in its second decade of hosting shows and dance parties of all genres, for most of the pandemic. It made do with donations, grants and meager earnings from drinks served on an outdoor patio.

But in July, after the city lifted the capacity restrictions that prevented management from hosting enough concertgoers to break even, Ottobar reopened in full force: no masks, no proof of vaccination required. It didn’t last long.

“We had one show where it was masked off and several of our staff members, including myself, came down with COVID,” said Ottobar owner Tecla Tesnau.

She said that she and those staff members were fully vaccinated and got sick anyway. The venue closed for three days, at an expense so enormous she grimaced from its memory. That left her eager to tighten the bar’s restrictions and “regulate things as much as we possibly could, according to the science.”

During a two-week quarantine period, when staff members who didn’t test positive ran the venue in her stead, she devised the current rules: in order to revel at Ottobar, you must show proof of at least one COVID vaccination shot through a vaccine card or scan of a vaccine card or a negative COVID test result within 72 hours of entry.

Once customers are inside, the trick becomes enforcing mask wearing, Hesichman the bouncer said. The venue requires masks be worn at all times while not sipping a drink. Holding a beverage in your hand does not count, he quips.

For the most part, people are compliant once they’re in, though some types of shows have more offenders than others, Hesichman said. But once patrons with masks half-on their face realize that bouncers will enforce the mask rules, they get with the program.

Ottobar regular Erika Samis said she likes the policies because they make patrons answer an important question: “Can everyone verify that they're like, they're not carrying this to the best of their ability? That you are safe to be in public?”

“The whole point of getting vaccinated and proof of vaccination is for the well-being of the collective of everyone who is present,” she said.

Most patrons show proof of vaccination, not negative tests. When would-be patrons are unable to enter because they don’t have either of those things on hand, they usually claim to be vaccinated but don’t have their vax cards on hand because they didn’t know the rules, Hesichman said.

Ben Korbelack, a member of a group who arrived at Ottobar from Baltimore County without any proof of vaccination, said he didn’t think he should need to show proof.

“I’m vaccinated, I feel like that should be enough,” he said. “But I also understand that people can abuse that.

Hesichman suggested he search his email for a photo of his vax card or some sort of confirmation email, but Korbelack didn’t produce anything. Eventually, the church youth group leader, who was trying to see a former student take the stage during metal night, left.

“He just graduated,” he said of his former student. “We want to continue this relationship with him and continue celebrating with them, and this is creating a roadblock for us to be able to do that.”

Tesnau said the rules are about keeping patrons, staff and musicians safe by mitigating the risk of spreading COVID as much as possible.

“The twists and turns that the delta variant has presented is making what everyone had hoped in the beginning of July as the road to recovery more unexpected,” said Audrey Fix Schaefer, communications head for I.M.P, which owns the 9:30 Club and The Anthem in Washington. She also serves as vice president of the Board of Directors for the National Independent Venue Association, or NIVA.

NIVA, which has about 3,000 members, has informally recorded several hundred closures, Schaefer said, adding that certain venues were more susceptible than others.

She said the no-show rate at concerts is now between 5% and 8% — about three times greater than pre-pandemic numbers.

“And that is not good,” Schaefer said. “Venues rely on patrons buying food and beverage and merchandise. The artist gets most of what's on the ticket price. And when the behavior of consumers is so different than it's ever been before, it’s tough to run this kind of business.”

Her no-questions-asked refund policy adds another degree of precarity to Ottobar’s finances, Tesnau said. But she says it’s the humane thing to do.

“We understand that we are still in a pandemic,” she said. “People not may not feel comfortable. They might have purchased tickets in 2020 early 2021 for a show that got postponed until this year. And of course I don’t want anyone who feels sick feeling that they might try to show up and get their money’s worth.”

Ottobar’s sound engineer Natasha Tylea sees everything from the tiny sound booth facing the main stage, including a vapor that sometimes arises at crowded shows.

“When you see the smog of like humidity in the air, you're like, ‘What is in that cloud of whatever moisture hanging over us?’” she said. “That's a little intense.”

Tesnau and Tylea said that most staffers returned when Ottobar reopened. They missed the community space — and their paychecks. But that doesn’t make risking COVID any less anxiety inducing, Tylea said.

“I need people to understand that not only are the rules for patrons and musicians, but for staff too,” she said. “We're all a little on edge. But we're so grateful for everyone coming out and that we've survived.”

The Baltimore metal band Born of Plagues agrees. (The group has had that name for a few years now, but expect they’ll get jokes about it forever.) After a year without crowds, they’ve missed having an audience.

“Sometimes I get tired of staring at these four guys when we're playing, you know, it's nice to see somebody else,” said vocalist and guitarist Austin Lunn. “And even with a mask on, you can see some semblance of enjoyment or despair or whatever in [the crowd’s] eyes and facial expressions.”

That unexplainable connection between crowd members is what’s keeping Ottobar’s dance floors full these days. The escape from reality that concerts provide feels sweeter, more vital than ever, Tesnau said.

“I know there are so many others who feel like I do: that the music has to keep happening and I have to happen with it,” Tesnau said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.