Republican congressman Matt Gaetz wants to stop the music this weekend in Florida, when it comes to the 30A Songwriters Festival, an annual gathering that he contends is acting as a scofflaw when it comes to COVID restrictions — by having any at all.
Gaetz has written an open letter to Florida governor Ron De Santis over what the congressman says is “the illegal implementation of vaccine passports” at the festival, asking him to “inform the Walton County Tourist Development Council of the ramifications if they proceed in funding the 30A Songwriters Festival under these unlawful conditions.”
But 30A organizers tell Variety they aren’t imposing any more onerous restrictions than the most basic ones happening at virtually every other concert in the area, and that these hardly constitute the so-called “vaccine passport” that has become a bogeyman of the right.
Rep. Gaetz “did not verify anything with us” before issuing a press release, says Russell Carter, who co- produces the 30A Songwriters Festival with Jennifer Steele for the non-profit Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County. “He just ranted about Vaccine Passports, which we do not nor ever have advocated or required.”
30A, scheduled for Friday through Sunday, is due to feature singer-songwriters like Emmylou Harris, Jenny Lewis, Dawes, Patty Griffin, Rickie Lee Jones, Allison Moorer, Mavis Staples, Hayes Carll and dozens more familiar to the folk-rock or Americana communities. (See a full lineup here.)
Carter maintains that the festival policy, which is to require proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-18 test for attendees, is well in line with Florida law. Gov. DeSantis, who is like-minded with Gaetz in being against virtually all COVID-related restrictions, did sign off last spring on a bill making it illegal to require vaccine proof as a requirement to enter a business. But in Florida and the other 19 Republican-governed states where such laws have been passed, concert and live theater promoters have generally been understood to be in the clear as long as their primary requirement is a negative test, with proof of vaccination being a way of opting out of the test mandate.
In a statement issued to Variety Tuesday night, Gaetz said: “The policy of the 30A Songwriters Festival is to subject unvaccinated Floridians to different screening than the vaccinated. This is a dangerous, slippery slope. Governor DeSantis has repeatedly made clear that it will be unlawful to treat these groups differently in any way, and we agree with him.”
In his open letter to the governor issued earlier, Gaetz said that “vaccine passports should not be funded by Florida taxpayers,” and that what 30A requires for admission is “a blatant violation of Executive Order 21-81, ‘Prohibiting COVID-19 Vaccine Passports.’ … Your executive order allows entities to engage in COVID-19 screening, generally, but does not permit different treatment for the vaccinated and unvaccinated.”
30A’s position is that the unvaccinated are equally as welcome at the festival as the vaccinated, as long as they can provide a negative test from within the previous 72 hours, something that DeSantis’ office has signaled an OK on in the past.
“Rep. Gaetz is no stranger to the 30A Songwriters Festival,” Carter says. “He represents Walton County where the Festival is produced every MLK holiday weekend in January. His office has on many occasions contacted the festival requesting complimentary tickets, and he has attended the Festival at least twice in recent years. Prior to sending and publishing a letter to Gov. DeSantis, he easily could have called us to clarify what our policy is or researched it by going to our website to verify there is in fact no Vaccine Passport. Instead he quite simply misrepresented the facts in an irresponsible manner.”
Carter quoted the festival’s printed language: “All Festival Patrons MUST present a negative COVID test (within the previous 72 hours), along with a valid government-issued photo ID, to receive a 30A SONGWRITERS FESTIVAL wristband. (Note: Festival Patrons may choose to present proof of full vaccination in lieu of a negative test).”
The producer went on to say the governor’s office had signed off on that language, and to quote the governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, as saying: “SB 2006 only prohibits businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from customers as a condition of entry or service. If concert-goers can provide a negative COVID test instead of a vaccine passport, that is acceptable under the law. People who want to show proof of vaccination instead of a COVID test are free to do that. It just cannot be compelled.”
Added Carter: “Our festival is a benefit for the non-profit Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County. The festival raises hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for the arts group. It also generates over $8 million in revenue to the resorts, hotels, bars, restaurants, rental home companies and other small businesses throughout the county. … We bring ‘hooks, lines, and singers’ to 30A. The music begins begins Friday at 4 p.m. — come join us.”