Sean Nyary checks identification and vaccination cards at the entrance to the Empty Bottle on August 27, 2021.
Sean Nyary checks identification and vaccination cards at the entrance to the Empty Bottle on August 27, 2021. Credit: Kathleen Hinkel for Chicago Reader

For a few relatively blissful weeks in July 2021, Chicago’s COVID-19 infection rates dropped far enough that it was possible to believe that the worst of the pandemic was over. Then the Delta variant hit. The city didn’t lock down again, but Delta posed a dire threat to public health as well as to the financial viability of many small businesses—especially music venues, which had just started reopening for the first time since March 2020. Most could no longer afford to close their doors, so they had to find other ways to protect their patrons. 

On August 3, Metro announced that it was requiring proof of vaccination and recommending masks. Dozens of other music venues in the city and surrounding suburbs soon adopted their own policies—mandating masks except when patrons were actively eating or drinking, for instance, or requiring proof of vaccination or a recent negative test—and they were among the first Chicago hospitality businesses to do so. The city didn’t issue its own indoor mask mandate till August 20. The Hideout had enacted measures similar to Metro’s when it opened its outdoor patio for events in July, and the venue left its indoor stage closed through October. The Chicago Independent Venue League sponsored the website Vax Only Chicago to help the public keep track of which spots required proof of vaccination. 

The city didn’t mandate that indoor dining and entertainment establishments require proof of vaccination until January 3, 2022. By that point Omicron had surpassed Delta as the variant du jour, and once again many venues went further than the city demanded: the Empty Bottle, Cobra Lounge, the Hideout, and others voluntarily closed for a spell in December, January, or both, attempting to slow the latest outbreak. 

So how did it go? “For the most part, I believe our early mask-and-vax policy positively impacted the atmosphere of our shows,” says Empty Bottle manager Matt Ciarleglio. “The outpouring of support from musicians, customers, and staff far outweighed the negative responses.” Metro ​​marketing director Genna Saccomonto and Hideout co-owner Katie Tuten echo those sentiments. And even when the city lifted its mask and vaccine mandate on February 28, many venues left some COVID mitigations in place. If I weren’t already convinced that most of our independent music venues were the best of Chicago, the lengths to which so many have gone to keep our community safer would’ve done the trick.

Best of Chicago 2021 is
presented by

Green Thumb

sponsored in part by

Goethe Institut
Chicago History Museum

Refer to the closed final ballot to see all the categories and finalists that were voted on.