Madam's Organ owner Bill Duggan. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Madam’s Organ owner Bill Duggan recently pitched an idea he’s been thinking about for a few weeks now to a group of local venue owners and musicians: What if he reopened his Adams Morgan bar and music venue and operated it as similar to pre-pandemic times as possible but required staff and patrons to be fully vaccinated? 

Come May 1, Mayor Muriel Bowser is letting venues and bars with live entertainment partially reopen. Some of these businesses have been closed for more than a year. But Duggan still would not reopen his bar, one of D.C.’s most rambunctious spots for dancing and drinking until the pandemic shut it down. The government’s coronavirus regulations, from capacity limits to the social distancing requirements, would make it impossible, he says.

“Unless I can figure out a way to hang my customers on the wall, there is just no way we can have a crowd in there,” Duggan says. “We can’t do it.” 

His colleagues in the industry, owners and performers alike, empathized during a Zoom call on April 22. Everyone seemed to support Duggan’s vaccination idea too, though they had a lot of questions. “Would it be enough to say ‘I’ll check your vaccine card and I assume that most people won’t fake it and that’s good enough for me?’” asked Oren Levine, a jazz pianist and composer.

The group of a dozen or so creative types workshopped the idea for an hour. The idea is not exactly novel, but they wanted to tailor it to the District. Duggan had already asked the Bowser administration to let him fully reopen if everyone in the building could provide proof of vaccination (as first reported by WTOP), and a few other businesses and workers wanted to sign onto the idea. Given the negative connotations, they hesitated to call for a formal “vaccine passport,” though Duggan used the term in his initial appeal to Bowser. They are all members of the DC Music Stakeholders group, which formed during the pandemic to get the mayor and Council to do more to help their industry.

“The way the city is sort of handling these regulations and not providing any sort of science behind why is kind of really forcing our industry to come up with our own solutions,” Sandra Basanti, co-owner of the Pie Shop, said on the call. “I think [Duggan’s idea] is a good one.” 

With vaccinations underway, many are wondering what the “new normal” will look like. As of April 23, 20.2 percent of D.C. residents are fully vaccinated and 33.6 percent are partially vaccinated, according to DC Health, although the agency does not count most residents who’ve gotten shots outside the D.C. area. Bowser and her team have taken a more conservative approach to reopening as compared to Maryland and Virginia, much to the ire of local businesses that were first to close. For weeks, neighboring counties have permitted indoor dining at 50 percent capacity. Live entertainment returned to Montgomery County in mid-April at 25 percent capacity, and to Arlington County in late April at 30 percent capacity. Capacity limits will rise to 50 percent in Arlington County come May. 

In D.C., live entertainment returns May 1 at 25 percent capacity. Restaurants and bars can also offer live music outdoors, but are still capped at 25 percent capacity. Some owners and workers hope to resume business as close to pre-pandemic days as soon as possible, but limited government guidance makes that difficult. “I can’t,” said Mayor Bowser after being asked to say when businesses can operate at full capacity again. With no clear path forward, Duggan suggests requiring proof of vaccination upon entry. While some public health experts generally support the idea, it’s hard to say whether Bowser will, seeing as her administration typically follows federal guidance. The Biden administration has steered clear of issuing or requiring so-called “vaccine passports”, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continue to discourage medium-to-large gatherings among the fully vaccinated. 

Madam’s Organ appears to be the first business in D.C. to make such a request. Some of its problems extend from its narrow footprint on 18th Street NW. Social distancing requirements, like having patrons be at least 12 feet from the stage, in a bar that is roughly 20 feet wide make hosting any sizable crowd impossible. That makes earning enough money to pay the performers and staff impossible too, according to Duggan. Under government regulations, patrons would also have to stay seated. No dancing is antithetical to the bar’s ambiance. 

“The government doesn’t have to say everybody has to have a vaccine card. They have too many objections to that. But we as business owners should be able to. I have it that nobody’s allowed to wear a baseball hat in my place,” Duggan tells City Paper. “We’re not discriminating on anything—race, religion, sexual orientation. We are trying to keep our people safe, as well as everybody that comes in here. And by doing so, I think that we can do a lot of their work for them, by giving people incentive to be vaccinated.” 

About a week ago, Duggan emailed the mayor a letter he posted on his bar’s Facebook page. He never got a response, but the mayor’s press secretary tells City Paper that the bar has to submit a waiver before any sort of decision can be reached. Duggan is no longer interested in submitting a waiver on behalf of his bar. Instead, he wants the mayor to back his idea for the industry. 

Duggan describes his idea as simply this: Everyone from the performers to the patrons has to show proof of vaccination before entering, kind of like how anyone who wants to drink has to show ID. Those who lie are endangering themselves, he says. Business owners and government officials could work together to iron out any wrinkles. Duggan believes businesses should support the idea because current regulations are too onerous for owners, who can get fined $1000 for not serving the right food. Officials should run with it, he says, because someone who’s hesitant to get the shot could be convinced if it means they’ll be able to return to their favorite watering holes.

Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe. Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

Some venues are interested in requiring vaccination if it means safely reopening with fewer coronavirus restrictions. Joe Lapan, co-owner of Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe, thinks Duggan’s idea is good, but has a few questions. Who’s culpable, for example, if someone’s vaccine card is fake? Lapan is not a public health expert, so usually defers to the government. “It’s not for me to, like, come up with the answer,” he says. 

“I don’t see May 1 as a bright green light,” Lapan adds. He doesn’t know yet if Songbyrd will reopen for live entertainment, though the small venue reopened for a couple of months last year as a restaurant. Seeing as federal and local governments are offering what looks to be their last rounds of funding, Lapan does not want to reopen for live entertainment if it is unprofitable. “I support the idea of safely getting back to business. If that is a tool that we can implement, then I’m down for it,” Lapan says of requiring vaccination. His workers are either partially or fully vaccinated, so he believes Songbyrd could make it work. 

“If [the mayor] says ‘OK, you can do 200 people with vaccination cards’—of course we would do that,’” says Nicholas Fontana, the co-owner of Pearl Street Warehouse. “It’s not something I want to do. People are going to blame you if they get sick because you were supposed to check everybody’s ID. I’d rather have a sign saying ‘Come at your own risk.’ We’re running the safest place, but we cannot guarantee that you’re not going to catch COVID here.” 

Pearl Street Warehouse is one of the few venues that reopened in the fall under a city-sponsored pilot program. Fontana says they participated in the program for live entertainment to prove they could reopen safely, but made no money doing it due to coronavirus restrictions. “They haven’t really treated it like a pilot program, where they’re collecting data. They’ve been down like twice,” Fontana says of DC Health. He says his venue and dock bar, Cantina Bambina, reported three COVID-19 cases among staff and none among customers that they are aware of. Some of the rules did not make sense to Fontana when the pilot started, like having the audience be 30 feet from the stage. With vaccinations underway, these restrictions, especially the ones regulating the outdoors, make even less sense to him.

“We have no idea when we can reopen fully, and that’s what we’re going to need at the 9:30 Club, the Lincoln Theatre, and The Anthem in order to be able to open our doors again,” says Audrey Fix Schaefer, the head of communications at I.M.P., the entertainment company that operates those venues. “The only thing that is more financially debilitating than being fully shuttered is being partially open.” 

That’s because the vast majority of ticket sales go to the artists, whom they have to book months in advance, Schaefer says. Venues need to pack a room so they can sell food and drinks to afford all the operating costs. Given all the planning this requires, Schaefer wants the mayor to establish criteria for fully reopening. She says it is “premature to comment [on] whether I.M.P. will require vaccine passports, since we have no idea when we’re going to be able to reopen fully,” but adds that I.M.P. is willing to help the city with its vaccine efforts. The Anthem, for instance, hosted a mobile vaccine clinic.

Last year, the mayor’s reopen advisory group said an effective vaccine would trigger a “new normal,” although members said it should be “widely administered” before that happens. In lieu of entering a new phase of recovery, the Bowser administration eases specific restrictions on industries every so often. The executive defends this approach because it allows them to stay nimble. Some lawmakers see this approach as lacking a plan. “Folks are incredibly frustrated and worried that at the pace at which [DC Health] and the mayor are proceeding, there will be no business to reopen,” says Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie, who chairs the Committee on Business and Economic Development. “They say to me that they don’t see a plan for them and it puts them at an incredible disadvantage.” This is why, McDuffie says, he appreciates the Madam’s Organ idea. 

Bowser has not publicly shared what she thinks of businesses requiring vaccination. She, along with her health director, supports universities who require staff and students to be vaccinated before returning to campus. “Let me tell you why this population is different. Because they are coming from all parts of the country and the world,” Bowser said during an April 19 press conference. A week later, DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt said there is interest among public health experts in expanding what fully vaccinated people can do, but no one is ready yet to abandon all the coronavirus restrictions. “There are a couple of fault lines that should not be crossed in terms of saying that if this bar only opens to fully vaccinated people, it can open with dancing, full capacity and no mask,” Nesbitt said on April 26. “We are not at the place yet where that type of thing is advisable.” In an earlier call with the Council, DC Health’s Patrick Ashley expressed concerns about whether businesses requiring vaccination violates any antidiscrimination laws.

Meanwhile, a few states across the country have weighed in on vaccine passports. Various Republican governors have issued executive orders banning them. For example, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte said businesses cannot require patrons to show their vaccine cards upon entry. Alternatively, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has allowed certain businesses to reopen above existing capacity limits if patrons show proof of vaccination or negative test results. The Cuomo administration even created a mobile application New Yorkers can opt into that stores this information; businesses just scan a code on patrons’ mobile devices. 

A vial of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. Photo by Darrow Montgomery

Some public health experts support requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of returning to the workplace or obtaining services. Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, is one of them, and believes it is legally sound for the private sector. “Businesses can require proof of vaccinations to keep everyone safe without violating any antidiscrimination or human rights laws,” Gostin says via email. “It is important that businesses only seek and use information about vaccine status.” 

In an article he co-authored in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Gostin noted the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission allows employers to require the COVID-19 vaccine to return to the workplace even if the ones developed by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson are only approved for emergency use. There will be lawsuits, acknowledged one of the co-authors, Glenn Cohen of Harvard Law School, in a recent panel hosted by the AMA. There is already an active suit in New Mexico, but Cohen doesn’t buy the argument and believes it’ll be moot once one of the vaccines is fully approved in the fall.

Despite generally supporting the idea, Gostin does not recommend approving a singular request from a bar. “I think that bars like Madam’s Organ could open more safely at increased capacity if everyone were vaccinated,” he says via email. “Having said that, I would not support this particular business request. Most importantly the request is premature. As long as vaccines remain scarce, it would be inequitable to give privileges to those who are vaccinated … I also think it would be unwise to do this on a case by case basis. Rather, DC should have a deliberative, inclusive process for making the determination of relaxing its rules to permit higher capacity for establishments that allow only vaccinated employees and customers.” 

Every D.C. resident over 16 has only been eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine the last two weeks. While supply has met demand, it’s unclear if everyone who wants a vaccine can get one. When vaccination started, public health advocates called the roll out inequitable because DC Health relied on the internet and a health care system concentrated in Northwest. The health agency course corrected by going door to door to inform residents of opportunities and setting up mobile clinics in communities COVID-19 hit hardest. Some seniors in underserved communities just started getting vaccinated last week despite being eligible and wanting the shot for months.

Another challenge for D.C. businesses interested in requiring vaccination is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is still asking fully vaccinated people to avoid medium or large gatherings. Some experts think the CDC guidance for the fully vaccinated is too conservative. “If we’re going to persuade people to be vaccinated, we have to give them a lollipop,” says Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University. 

Given what experts know about efficacy—with real world evidence showing vaccines are highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, and mounting evidence suggesting they can reduce transmission—the request from Madam’s Organ is at least “reasonable,” says Schaffner. The risk to fully vaccinated patrons is not zero, but those who want to frequent the bar are probably willing to accept the low-level risk of catching COVID-19, he adds. However, he could understand why the mayor would still deny the request from Madam’s Organ or any other business. “What the CDC tries to do is live in the real world,” says Schaffner. “The larger the group, the more likely it is that someone will arrive with the virus, whether they’re vaccinated or not.”

“There are a lot of governors who’ve ignored CDC recommendations. And of course, that’s one of the main reasons we have had so much COVID spread,” continues Schaffner. “So as a public health person, if I have to make a decision about whether I’m going to get ahead of the CDC recommendations or stay with them, I would be inclined to stay with them and then call up the CDC and say, ‘Hey, isn’t it time to update these recommendations?’” 

The D.C. government’s approach to coronavirus restrictions has proved successful. According to a new report prepared for the Office of the D.C. Auditor, comprehensive and swift policy meant D.C. had among the lowest case and death rates during surges nationwide. 

It’s always been a delicate balance of assessing the risk for individuals versus for the community, according to Anne Monroe, a professor of epidemiology at George Washington University. “Individuals might be willing to take on that risk, but public officials may not yet,” she says. They are likely looking for more data to support recommendations loosening restrictions, particularly around the vaccines’ impact on transmission and variants.

That being said, experts all acknowledge it’ll be hard for the government to continue to justify harsh restrictions as more and more people get vaccinated and weigh the risks for themselves. 

This post has been updated to include more detailed comments from Audrey Fix Schaefer of I.M.P.

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