A D.C. Blues Bar Ran a Mini-Vaccine Drive for Employees and Performers. Now Its Owner Wants the Right To Reopen.

Madam's Organ owner Bill Duggan says opening venues for the vaccinated would be a "win-win-win." Artists could perform, businesses could make money, and people would have one more reason to get their shot.


We're rapidly getting to the point where America's supply of vaccines will outstrip demand for them. At the same time, COVID-risky bars, concert halls, and theaters are still kept closed by government order.

Could these two problems solve each other?

Bill Duggan, the owner of the Madam's Organ Blues Bar in Washington, D.C., thinks so. On Tuesday, he sent an open letter to Mayor Muriel Bowser asking that she allow music venues like his to reopen on the condition that staff, performers, and customers all have their shots.

"This would be a cost-free and very effective incentive to vaccinate," Duggan wrote. "If, by just getting vaccinated, employees could return to work, artists could perform, and patrons could again visit their favorite bar, restaurant or business, many, if not most, will choose to get the shot."

The pandemic has been especially hard on the city's concert halls. Unlike standard restaurants or bars, which can still draw in customers with outdoor dining and, more recently, some limited indoor capacity, music venues have had their main attraction effectively banned since March.

Bowser did roll out a live entertainment pilot program at a few select businesses in September, but it was laughably restrictive. Venues were limited to 50 people (including staff and performers), and patrons had to be seated 20 to 30 feet from the stage.

A number of famous D.C. jazz bars and concert halls have been forced to close permanently. Madam's Organ has managed to hang on despite being totally closed since March 2020.

Duggan tells Reason he chalks up his venue's survival to the fact that, unlike a lot of concert hall operators, he also owns his building. A side gig as a real estate developer has also enabled him to cover the roughly $10,000 in monthly expenses he still has on a business bringing in zero revenue.

Having to go over a year without being able to host a single show comes with non-monetary costs too.

"People know that they can come [into Madam's Organ] any time and hear some of the best music they're ever going to hear," he says. "I didn't go into the business because I had a passion for hamburgers."

To expedite the reopening of his business, Duggan has been running his own mini-vaccine campaign, helping some 40 employees and performers schedule appointments anywhere shots were available—from Baltimore to northern Virginia—and organizing transportation there and back.

He says almost all of his staff and performers have been vaccinated. That's a better ratio than the district as a whole, where only 30 percent of residents have been at least partially vaccinated as of Monday.

Meanwhile, the D.C. government continues to take the most tepid steps toward reopening venues. Come May 1, seated live entertainment will be allowed to open up at 25 percent capacity, and live music will be allowed to perform "near" outdoor diners.

These capacity restrictions—and requirements for people to be far away from the stage—make this slight easing of COVID regulations almost meaningless, given the size of most venues, says Duggan.

"The average commercial townhouse in Washington, D.C., is 20 feet wide," he says. "Unless I can figure out a way to hang up the three or four people that could fit into that space on the wall, I'm shit out of luck."

Letting venues reopen with some sort of private vaccine requirement would do a much better job of keeping people safe, while allowing him, his employees, and the district's artists and musicians a chance to ply their trade.

Duggan says that customers could be checked at the door for proof of vaccination, whether that's on a paper card or smartphone app. Venues already have to check for proof of age, he notes, and the city's Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration is already set up to ensure they're in compliance. He adds that businesses are already allowed to decide who they let into their space (within the bounds of anti-discrimination law) and that he's not asking for any special favors.

The D.C. government is "spending all this energy and money going door to door to convince people to get the vaccine," says Duggan. "At the same time, they're saying you need to get the vaccine, they're saying but if you get it, continue to wear your mask, social distance, don't travel, all these restrictions stay in place." Allowing his approach, he he argues, would be a "win-win-win."