Madam’s Organ Wants to Reopen With Vaccine Passports

Owner Bill Duggan is lobbying Mayor Muriel Bowser.

Photograph of Madam's Organ by Flickr user Denis Bocquet.

Adams Morgan blues bar Madam’s Organ has been closed ever since restaurants and bars were forced to shut down on March 16 of last year. Now, though, owner Bill Duggan is vaccinated. He’s helped get all his employees at least their first shot and offered them rides to appointments as far away as Baltimore. Many of the bands that perform at his venue are also fully vaccinated. So, he’s calling on Mayor Muriel Bowser to allow businesses to open for those with vaccine passports that, like IDs, would be checked at the door.

For the people who are on the fence, who are thinking about [getting the vaccine], they have to have some incentives,” Duggan says. “If you saw that you could go to your favorite bar, restaurant, hear music, go to your gym if you were vaccinated and know that you were safe because you were going to be around other people who are vaccinated, then you would get vaccinated.”

Duggan envisions that staff would check proof of vaccination as patrons enter the venue, and the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration could oversee compliance, just as they do with other Covid-related rules. Duggan notes that he’s not asking for a government-mandated vaccine passport, but rather permission to operate with his own strict safety guidelines.

Duggan has had conversations with officials from ABRA and the Mayor’s Office of Nightlife and Culture, but he hasn’t gotten a response from Bowser yet.

Bowser’s office did not directly answer a question from Washingtonian about whether she was considering vaccine passports going forward. Instead, a spokesperson sent a statement from the Department of Health saying, “At this time, we have not required vaccination as a pre-condition for entry into certain activities.”

At a press conference earlier this week, DC Health Director LaQuandra Nesbitt noted that the city had not issued guidance about what fully vaccinated people can do in public spaces such as places of worship or entertainment venues. “Right now, that guidance is specific to interactions in private homes,” she said.

Meanwhile, New York is the first state to introduce vaccine passports. Others, like Texas, have banned government-mandated vaccine passports, which Governor Greg Abbott has said “tread on our personal freedoms.”

Duggan brought up the idea with other local music venue operators in a Zoom call on Thursday, and most voiced interest in the idea. But the bar owner has gotten some calls from haters: “Fuck your bar, we’re coming in and we’re going to have fake vaccine cards!”

“I’m like, ‘You’re the only one that’s at risk if you’re the one faking it,'” Duggan says. “Some of it just makes no sense. It shouldn’t be a political issue.”

DC will allow live entertainment venues to open at 25 percent capacity with a limit of 500 people beginning May 1. (Previously, they needed a waiver.) Seats must be 20 feet from the stage, or 30 if there’s live singing.

That’s just not realistic for places like Madam’s Organ. “Unless we can figure out a way to hang people on hooks on the walls, it’s impossible,” Duggan says.

Madam’s Organ has weathered the past year with the help of whatever government aid it could get. It’s helped that Duggan is his own landlord. He also does some real estate development and has hired some Madam’s Organ employees for construction projects here and there.

“There was no light at the end of the tunnel, and we didn’t see any coming anytime soon. With the vaccines coming, it’s moved a lot faster than I think any of us anticipated based on how pessimistic we had gotten through the past year,” Duggan says.

Ultimately, he sees the vaccine passport as the only realistic way to get back to normal life anytime soon—”or in the case of Madam’s Organ, an abnormal life.”

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.