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Shots for Shows: How Puerto Rico’s ‘El Choli’ Drove Up Vaccination Rates on the Island

Rules at the San Juan landmark coincided with sales of 226,000 tickets, re-igniting the island's concert scene ahead of Latin American countries.

Despite a lull in cases of COVID-19, tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans lined up to receive vaccines in the second half of 2021. For many, their reasons for getting the jabs went beyond mere health concerns: They were itching to bring Latin music back to San Juan’s famed Coliseo de Puerto Rico.

From June through the end of December, 226,000 people purchased tickets to attend events at the 18,500-capacity Coliseo, the most prestigious venue in the Caribbean.

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But in order to enter the gates of El Choli, as it is affectionately called — a venue that has hosted the likes of Karol G, Rauw Alejandro, Zion & Lennox and Ednita Nazario — concertgoers needed to show proof of vaccination.

The requirement is credited by health officials with playing a key role in Puerto Rico’s high vaccination rate, and, as it turned out, was critical in reactivating the island’s music industry. Puerto Rico became one of the first Latin territories to restart concerts in major venues.

Also playing key roles were widespread support by artists and a vaccine requirement-awareness campaign conceived and produced jointly by the government, the Puerto Rico Convention Center District Authority (CCDA), which owns the coliseum, and ASM Global, which manages it.

“The music industry was crucial in curbing the pandemic,” says Puerto Rican health secretary Carlos Mellado. “We’ve been in lockstep with the Coliseum and the District Authority since the beginning of the pandemic. As soon as vaccines were available, they were pioneers in making it an entrance requirement.”

Rauw Alejandro
Rauw Alejandro performs at Coliseo de Puerto Rico. Fronthouse PR

According to Johns Hopkins University, 2.58 million Puerto Ricans, or nearly 77.8%, are fully vaccinated, compared to just under 64.9% of all Americans, 70.6% of Californians and 74.1% of the population of New York.

And among the fully vaccinated Puerto Ricans on the island, more than 500,000 walked into CCDA venues in 2021, including the 226,000 who purchased tickets to the Coliseum, according to Billboard Boxscore.

It was part of a concerted effort that began when ASM Global, which manages more than 325 venues globally, started developing its “venue shield,” an industry-wide hygiene program designed for the COVID-19 crisis.

ASM also made sure its Puerto Rican venues obtained Star Facility accreditation from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC). Once that was in place, “it inspired confidence from the government,” says Jorge L. Perez, the regional general manager for ASM Global in Puerto Rico, who oversees the operation of the convention center, Coliseo and Coca Cola Music Hall. “We said, ‘We can open our doors.'”

Karol G
Karol G: Plays at Coliseo de Puerto Rico in November 2021. Fronthouse PR

With government approval and oversight, in June the Coliseo hosted its first concert, with beloved Puerto Rican star Gilberto Santa Rosa. The show was promoted via a massive billboard and television campaign — supported by Santa Rosa on his social media — which drove home the message that fans needed to be fully vaccinated to get inside the venue.

At the same time, the government created a platform called Vacu ID where vaccinated individuals could upload their proof of vaccination and obtain a QR Code, much like what air travelers do when traveling abroad.

“We gave them the know-how, and our security department inside the department of health made sure things went as they should,” says Mellado.

Because most, if not all, shows were at the Coliseum – at least in the beginning—it was natural to tap into the artists to support the messaging, says Mariela Vallines, executive director for the Puerto Rico Convention District Authority.

“For Puerto Ricans, going to the Coliseum is part of our culture and our idiosyncrasy,” says Vallines. “If people wanted to see Karol G, they had to get vaccinated. In that regard, it was a stimulus. And the artists, on their own own, understood the importance of reinforcing that message on their social media.”

El Coliseo has long been ground zero for local artists to prove their mettle before they tour the world — and it’s the venue many superstars return to when they end their tours. Selling out the 18,500-seat venue once, or multiple times, is a matter of profound pride.

This connection allowed for the development of multiple information and marketing campaigns, including one called “Póntela Pa’l Choli” (Wear It For The Choli), where a mask was designed for each individual show and handed to fans as they walked into the venues.

“For my concerts, it was a gold mask,” says Ednita Nazario, the beloved Puerto Rican singer who is known as “La Reina del Coliseo” (The Queen of the Coliseum) and calls El Choli “mi casa” (my house.)

“I believe firmly in the importance of good information that’s well delivered and, in this case, that sought to address the pandemic,” adds Nazario, who played two Choliseos in November. “El Choli, a place I adore, took the scientific information and was key in the campaign to take the message to the public with effective and striking messaging. They gave priority to health protocols and security and were very rigorous and effective.”

The campaigns extended beyond music shows. In tandem with Los Cangrejeros de Santurce, the basketball team owned by Bad Bunny and manager Noah Asad, ASM and the department of health created a campaign called “Juega Pa’l Equipo: Vacúnate” (Play for Team: Get Vaccinated), to get sports fans to come to the regular basketball season that started in the summer.

(The island’s vaccination campaign was not enough, however, for Puerto Rico to avoid a late-December spike in virus cases of 4,600%. Two Bad Bunny concerts at a different San Juan venue – the baseball park Estadio Hiram Bithorn — were partly blamed for the uptick, as promoters did not enforce mandatory mask measures inside the venue.)

El Choli, says Pérez, ended up hosting 45 events in 2021, including 14 basketball games that sold over 60,000 total tickets. For 2022, the venue is on track to far outpace that number, with 32 shows already on sale.

Using artists and El Coliseo as the major thrust of a vaccination campaign was never the plan, says Vallines. “But COVID restrictions really affected the coliseum, so it made sense,” she says. “And the artists stepped up to the plate.”