The festival at El Cosmico is returning in September after being cancelled last year because of the pandemic, but organizers have announced updated COVID-19 safety protocols that mirror those enacted by other high-profile events around the country.
By Travis Bubenik
Following the lead of major music festivals like Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits, the smaller Trans-Pecos Festival of Music + Love in Marfa has announced that attendees and workers will be required to prove that they’ve been fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or show a negative test within 72 hours of the festival’s kickoff.
El Cosmico, the boutique hotel-campground where the festival is held, announced the new rules on Thursday.
Liz Lambert, the hotel’s owner, spoke with Marfa Public Radio about the change, and the broader decision to move forward with the festival at a time when COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are surging across the state and in parts of West Texas. The festival is set for Sept. 22-26.
Disclosure: Lambert also sits on the board of directors for Marfa Public Radio.
On enforcing the rules
“We are prepared to turn people away, for sure,” Lambert said.
On its website, El Cosmico described the festival’s full health and safety rules in more detail, saying festival attendees who exhibit COVID-19 symptoms will be referred to a “health tent” and undergo another test if necessary. The hotel warned that it would ask people to leave the festival grounds immediately “if the situation warrants it.”
As to the reaction among attendees, Lambert said the festival had lost “maybe a couple of people” since announcing the new rules.
“We’re going to deal with that on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We’re going to allow people to move their tickets to 2022, or transfer your ticket to a vaccinated friend, or when necessary, we’ll refund the money.”
On the decision to move forward with the festival
“We believe the vaccines are working, and we’re comfortable bringing the festival back this year at a smaller scale,” Lambert said.
This year’s Trans-Pecos festival will be half of its usual size in terms of capacity, which Lambert said will amount to more than 1,000 fewer tickets being sold this year. The festival also added an extra day to its usual three-day lineup.
“We’re following the lead of much bigger festivals,” Lambert said. “We think the protocols will work.”
On the business side of the festival
Lambert described the broader decision to move forward with the festival during the current COVID-19 surge in Texas as involving a “big emotional calculation.”
“The economics of what El Cosmico makes from doing the festival is not part of the calculation,” she said. “We pretty much break even at doing the festival.”
Recent discussions among organizers involved “a lot of, which way do we go,” she said.
“But we really believe at this point that we can do this safely, and that it would be great for the community and for the people who participate,” she said.
On the legality of the new protocols
While the Trans-Pecos festival isn’t alone in requiring vaccine proof or negative tests for entry, there continue to be swirling legal questions in Texas about how much power businesses have to enforce such rules.
In recent weeks, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission has threatened to pull licenses from businesses that require guests to prove they’ve been vaccinated. The warning stems from a new state law passed earlier this year that broadly bars businesses from requiring vaccine proof from customers.
Lambert said the Marfa festival, which sells plenty of alcohol, originally wanted to only allow fully vaccinated guests to attend, but added the option of a negative COVID test after hearing about the TABC’s warning.
“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” she said.
Austin City Limits is taking that same approach for its much larger festival in October. Both events could amount to a kind of test of the new state law.
“I’m not aware of anyone trying this novel approach yet,” one business attorney told TV news station CBS Austin about ACL’s approach.