This concert ticket costs $18 - or $1,000 if you're not vaccinated
This spring, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order forbidding businesses from making their patrons prove that they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus. He also signed into law a bill to give the ban more teeth, threatening violators with fines in the thousands of dollars.
One Florida concert promoter thinks he has a workaround: offer $18 tickets to anyone who is vaccinated and charge $999.99 for everyone else.
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"I'm not denying entry to anyone," said Paul Williams. "I'm just offering a discount."
The governor's office says the unorthodox pricing violates Florida's rules: "Charging higher ticket prices for individuals who do not furnish proof of vaccination unfairly discriminates against people who have enumerated rights under Florida law," said Christina Pushaw, press secretary for the Republican governor's office, in an email to The Washington Post.
Williams said he figured his tactics were safe - the executive order carries limited penalties, and the new law does not go into effect until shortly after his small punk rock event planned for June 26 in St. Petersburg. But he said he was unprepared for the vitriol that followed: The anti-vaccination Facebook messages, the sudden spam calls, the misspelled email that warned the band their next show could be their "last" and said: "You're fans are going to kill you."
"I didn't know that caring about my community would make me Hitler," he said in an interview Saturday, declining to give his age out of concern for his privacy. He said he and the band are flagging the threatening email to law enforcement.
The backlash around a modest event for a couple hundred people underscores the deep divisions over what the United States' return to normal should look like amid lingering resistance to vaccination. As the rate of shots slow, public health officials have warned that the country may not reach the oft-repeated goal of "herd immunity" against a virus that has killed nearly 600,000 people in the United States and slowed the economy. But some states including Florida have sought to limit businesses' ability to check vaccinations after a year of coronavirus restrictions becoming politicized.
Asked Saturday whether he regrets the pricing move - which brought national news coverage - Williams said: "We're still sticking to our guns."
A few of the "discount" tickets were left as of Saturday afternoon, he said; headliner Teenage Bottlerocket's website listed the St. Petersburg show as having sold out. None of the "standard" price tickets had sold.
Williams said attendees must present photo ID and a coronavirus vaccination card the day of the concert to enter at the lower price, which was reported by Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay.
Miguel Chen, the bassist for Teenage Bottlerocket, said in an interview that his group was eager to get back out after canceling international tour plans during the pandemic - a devastating time for many in the music scene. Chen said the band's most recent show was in March 2020.
"It's obvious that covid and music are going to kind of have to coexist for a while," he said. "So we had this idea of ... let's contact these promoters and kind of spitball and come up with creative ways to do safe shows."
Some events are moving outdoors. Others are limiting capacities. Then there was Williams's idea.
"When we first heard it, we thought it was a joke," Chen said. But band members had gotten their shots as soon as possible, he said, eager to protect their families and resume playing. They agreed that if Williams thought this was "the best way to safely throw a party in his town, then we back him and we support it," Chen recalled.
Hailing from Texas - another Republican-led state where covid-19 restrictions have drawn pushback - Chen said he's familiar with the divisions over vaccination and wants to respect people's views.
But "I never in my life thought I'd be in a place where I'm getting threatened for trying to play music and spread joy," he said.
Williams said he did not know of anyone turning to a similar pricing plan. Legal experts told The Post that others in Florida should be wary of following suit, especially when the state's new law backed by fines takes effect in July.
Such a large price hike for the unvaccinated "violates the spirit" of Florida's ban on requiring proof of immunization, said Andrew Zelmanowitz, a business lawyer based in Fort Lauderdale. It's different, he said, from the modest incentive programs many businesses are using to encourage vaccination.
Eric Feldman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's law school who has expertise in health policy, agreed: "It's basically saying unless you show us proof of vaccine status, we're going to treat you really badly."
Pushaw said that the governor's office "cannot speculate on what will happen in any specific case" and that the concert would violate the spirit of the executive order.
"There are individuals who have medical issues or religious beliefs that don't allow them to get vaccinated, and those individuals are members of protected classes," Pushaw said in an email Saturday. "Also, the governor has been clear on his stance that no one should face discrimination due to vaccination status."
The executive order says business in Florida may not require "any documentation certifying COVID-19 vaccination or post-transmission recovery to gain access to, entry upon, or service from the business," similar language to the new law. It says violators are ineligible for state-funded grants or contracts, and it directs state agencies to enforce compliance.
A spokeswoman for Teenage Bottlerocket, Vanessa Burt, said the band understands Williams is operating within the law by offering a discount and has "assured us that he will deal with any hang-ups."
Williams and Chen said they have gotten support for their promotion of getting vaccinated - but also anger, underscoring the intensity of the country's resistance to vaccination. The blowback, Williams said, has extended to the concert venue, a St. Petersburg post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
A man who answered the phone at Post 39 on Saturday said no one was available to talk, but the post seemed to respond to the furor Friday in a Facebook post: "The VFW does not promote any kind of discrimination, this is a place for combat veterans and their families to support each other."
Dozens of upset people have contacted Williams through his promoter Facebook page, he said. Some are vulgar; some refer to the Holocaust, repeating much-criticized comparisons of vaccination requirements to Nazi persecution and murder of Jews. Williams said that he cannot be sure of the source of a sudden torrent robocalls, but that he was being targeted for his position on vaccinations.
"Your life is fine ... and then and then your phone just blows up insane out of nowhere," he said.
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