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As COVID-19 cases rise, Austin music community considers proof-of-vaccination options

Would Austin music venues consider a proof-of-vaccination requirement for attending shows?

That’s a question being debated among some members of the local music community this week, in the wake of several local musicians confirming they’d recently contracted COVID-19 despite being vaccinated.

Shinyribs leader Kevin Russell is among them. Russell got his second dose of the Moderna vaccine in March and has gradually returned to playing shows with his band since then. After a string of mid-July shows in Dallas, Waco and El Campo, Russell began feeling unwell.

A COVID-19 test was positive. One of his bandmates also has tested positive. Russell is now a week into a quarantine stretch of 10 to 14 days.

Shinyribs leader Kevin Russell recently contracted COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated. He's now advocating a proof-of-vaccination policy for music venues.

In isolation, Russell began thinking about what could be done amid the recent rise of cases that have been widely attributed to the more aggressive delta variant of the virus.

“I was just thinking about my band and all the other musicians,” he said. “I don’t want the rest of my band to be put in that position, so how do I best protect my band and my fans?”

He conducted unscientific surveys on social media. More than 400 people responded to a Twitter poll in which he asked if individuals would support music venues requiring proof of vaccination. The result: 69% said yes.

Toward that end, the advocacy nonprofit Austin Texas Musicians is launching a petition this week for musicians to sign “in support of proof of vaccination or masks for all musicians, staff and guests attending venue shows,” Executive Director Patrick Buchta said Tuesday.

If the petition gets enough signatures, Buchta said, the plan is to send it to all venues in Texas “to let them know where the overall majority of our musicians stand on the issue.”

At least two other Austin musicians — George Brainard of the band Imperial Starlighters, and pianist Jay Stiles — also recently posted on social media that they’d contracted COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated.

“To those of you that don’t know anyone that has been directly affected by this, you do now — fully vaxxed and still caught it,” Stiles wrote in a July 19 public Facebook post. “My symptoms are mild, but real nonetheless.”

Russell, Brainard and Stiles all reported relatively mild symptoms, suggesting the vaccines have been effective in preventing more serious battles with the virus. This dovetails with recent data showing that almost all recent coronavirus cases requiring hospitalization have involved unvaccinated people.

RELATED:Troubling mix of delta variant, unvaccinated population may be driving rise in COVID cases

New York venue City Winery, where Russell is scheduled to perform next month, recently instituted such a proof-of-vaccination policy. An Associated Press article from June 26 noted that other locations of City Winery, a chain that also has venues in seven other U.S. cities, are not requiring proof of vaccination.

City Winery CEO Michael Dorf told the AP that if the company’s Nashville and Atlanta locations adopted such a policy, “we would have no business, because so many people are basically against it.”

In San Francisco, an alliance representing 300 bar owners announced a proof-of-vaccination plan Monday. It’s more of a recommendation than a hard-and-fast rule: “It will be up to each individual bar to decide how best to enforce this,” the alliance’s statement noted.

In April, Gov. Greg Abbott banned leaders of state agencies and other taxpayer-funded entities from requiring "vaccine passports." It's unclear as to whether the state would have such authority over private businesses, or would attempt to subject them to such a ban.

One Austin venue has responded to the recent COVID-19 spike by reclosing. Downtown jazz haven the Elephant Room reopened June 22 after 15 months of pandemic-related closure, but the bar shut down again July 7 after a staff member tested positive for the virus.

MORE:Elephant Room in Austin re-closes amid COVID-19 concerns

Meanwhile, some prominent Austin musicians are pulling back from summer shows they’d scheduled. Singer-songwriter James McMurtry had planned an August return to his weekly residencies at the Continental Club and Continental Gallery. On Monday, longtime Continental representative Dianne Scott confirmed that McMurtry has withdrawn from the shows, for now.

Nearby South Congress Avenue club C-Boy’s, also owned by Continental Club proprietor Steve Wertheimer, is scrambling to fill residency holes as well. Robert Kraft, who’d been booked for a Friday happy-hour residency, has pulled out for now. Stiles’ band Heart & Soul Syndicate is still on the August schedule for Monday nights, but Stiles wrote in his Facebook post that he'd be taking a break from live gigs "for a while."

Other musicians who have postponed or canceled shows include pianist Chris Gage, who has temporarily moved his Monday Donn's Depot residency back online from home after recently returning to the bar; Selena tribute band Bidi Bidi Banda, which announced a pause on live shows through August; and pop group Belle Sounds, which has put on hold plans for an Aug 20 EP release gig at Captain Quackenbush’s.

TESTING:Austin Public Health reopening 2 COVID-19 testing sites

Scott indicated that the Continental Club has concerns about the viability of a proof-of-vaccination requirement.

“Steve is a little bit worried about turning our door people into police because of the confrontation factor,” she said. In addition, she noted that the cards issued to those who get vaccinated would not be hard to duplicate.

“Theoretically we would not be opposed to" proof of vaccination, she said. “But how to put it into practice would be the real key.”

Scott acknowledged that the recent spike in virus cases has required constant attention.

“Whether we’ll even be open tomorrow, and have bands and staff here, is a guessing game,” she said.

Buchta said the Austin Texas Musicians’ stance is unwavering: “ATXM unequivocally supports proof of vaccinations at venues. This is the only way we're going to be able to get back to work and keep the doors open as cases continue to surge.”