Neumos in Seattle, in a Pandemic: ‘It’s Just Too Risky’ Not to Require Proof of Vaccination

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As co-owner of Seattle’s popular independent venue Neumos in Capitol Hill, Steven Severin has been a staple in the Seattle music industry for more than 20 years. Roughly 10 years ago, he helped create the Seattle Nightlife and Music Association to bring together the area’s live event insiders, and for the past 16 years has helped run Neumos with its sister club Barboza and the accompanying Runaway bar.

As part of Billboard’s efforts to best cover the coronavirus pandemic and its impacts on the music industry, we have been speaking with Severin regularly to chronicle his experience throughout the crisis. (Read the last installment here and see the full series here.)

How have things been going at Neumos since you received the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant funds?

Things are awesome. I got a paycheck. I’m off unemployment! We have a full staff again. Everyone is back and working. We have shows and they are all sold out and packed. People are loving it. We get to pay all these past bills, which is an amazing feeling. [The Small Business Administration] was going to split it up into four payments for the distribution of the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant and it was like, “Why?” That was going to take them so much more work and we owe a lot of money. A quarter of that is not going to pay my bills. I am so glad they came around and understood that wasn’t the way to do it. Now we get to pay people back, which is good because they need the money too.  

I’m stoked. It’s so rad to be past that point and being able to think about the future. Even with everything being so up in the air with the [COVID] variants, I’m like, “We were closed for 476 days. I think we can handle whatever else comes at us.” If I can make it through that mentally, I can make it through just about anything. My gas tank is on empty and I don’t want to. I would like to just cruise through the rest of the summer and into the fall, but that’s not going to be the case.  

Why can’t you just cruise?

Two weekends ago, nine bars closed down in Seattle because of COVID hitting employees. Because of that, there was a big push to require vaccination to come in. Neumos had already done that. When we opened, we required vaccination proof. We didn’t make a huge deal about it, partially because you never want to be the first and you don’t want to be the last. When you bought a ticket, it said you need to be vaccinated. We didn’t want to get the backlash of it, but once [the nine bars closed] there was a bigger push for everybody to start [requiring vaccination proof]. So we did it with our bar, Life on Mars, which we hadn’t originally. People went ballistic on us. They went apes—t. I got called Nazi so many times, which is such a weird thing to call someone over asking for proof of vaccination and trying to help protect them.  

The good thing is it sparked all these other businesses doing it. Now there are over 100 bars and venues that have done it in Seattle. They are all requiring vaccination cards. I understand that there are people who don’t want to get vaccinations for various reasons – that’s their choice. But it is my choice to protect my staff and my patrons. You can also provide proof of a negative test from the last 48 hours. It’s just too risky right now.  

How did the backlash to the vaccination proof decision present itself? 

We had to delete 200 comments on Instagram. What I think happened, is that some right-wing group got a hold of us and sent it to their mailing list and then some 14-year-old kid in South Carolina posts on your account that you’re horrible and Nazis and whatever else. It’s dumb, but it is a tactic they use. We also got hundreds of comments about how amazing it was from real people. And then the trolls go to Yelp and Google. So I spent most of the weekend dealing with Yelp and Google, being like “Look, these people don’t live in the state. Read what they posted. They posted one star and that we’re horrible, but they didn’t come inside.” They took most of them down. Some people aren’t as dumb as others and talked about the food being sh-tty and the service being sh-tty. Yelp and Google won’t touch those ones. We will deal with that later. There are ways of getting further on that. That was just the first scrub. This is happening all over the country.  

How hard was it to get these bad reviews scrubbed? 

Getting the basic one-star ones was easy. You just go and report them. The people at Yelp and Google go and they can see pretty clearly that they aren’t real reviews. The next ones, we’ll see. We’ll put some actual strategy behind it other than just me reporting it. I also don’t care as much about reviews as the next person. I know it is super popular, but for my places people know what they are. If you’re coming to visit from out of town, you’re coming for John Richards and KEXP. [Richards is a Seattle radio DJ at KEXP and co-owner of Life on Mars.] But Neumos came out fine. The right-wing groups didn’t come after the venue. Neumos got 98% positive reviews for that choice and the other 2% probably weren’t coming any ways. And if they were, who cares? We just did everything we could to be open again. I am not taking a chance on my livelihood.  

soul, classic soul, motown,