Covid safety at a theater near you

(Updated Dec. 19)

The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has arrived in the US. While there was little talk initially about shutdowns – President Biden came out quickly against them – uncertainty and concern have risen to the level reached in the midsummer spike of Delta-variant infections.

Delta remains the dominant strain in most of the US; but Omicron is surging in New York, Washington and other parts of the Northeast, and public-health officials anticipate the new strain soon becoming dominant across the country.

In New York, Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas production and several Broadway shows have been canceled. More cancellations, there and elsewhere, are sure to follow.

The Covid protocols currently followed by most US theaters and arts groups date from the resumption of large public gatherings in the spring and early summer, and subsequently were tightened in response to the Delta spike. As we learn more about Omicron’s potency – it is more rapidly and widely infectious, and it apparently evades some vaccine protection (especially among people who haven’t received booster shots) – we should expect tightened Covid rules for events that go on as scheduled.

What are the safety policies now in place?

Letter V covers musical events in Virginia and the Washington area, so that will be the focus of this survey.

If I were setting pandemic rules for public events – pre-Omicron, at least – this would be my model: Washington Performing Arts advises patrons that most of its venues “have announced a Covid safety policy in line with our own policy of 100% vaccination” for staff and vendors. “[P]roof of a recent, negative test [is] an acceptable alternative in some cases. All partner venues also require that audiences be masked at all times within indoor facilities.”

Covid protocols vary among the region’s other prominent performance groups and venues. Some require wearing masks, others “encourage” or “urge” the precaution. Admission policies diverge most sharply on whether patrons are required to show documents – vaccination cards, negative test readouts, photo ID in some places. That’s the safest practice, but it can create bottlenecks or produce mini-dramas at entrances. And it can sour the experience with a “show me your papers” vibe.

Here are safety policies now in effect, from advisories posted on the websites of Virginia and DC area presenters and venues:

– The Richmond Symphony requires adults and children 17 or younger to present proof of vaccination – i.e., the card – or documentation of a negative result from a test professionally administered within the past three days, before admission to its concerts at the Carpenter Theatre of Dominion Energy Center. Photo ID is required for adults. The facility “strongly encourage[s] all patrons, whether they have been vaccinated or not, to wear masks while they are in the building.” 

– The same rules apply for Virginia Opera performances in Norfolk, Richmond and Fairfax, and for events at the Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax and Hylton Arts Center in Manassas, Capital One Hall in Tysons, The Barns at Wolf Trap in Vienna, the Kennedy Center in Washington, and venues at Strathmore in the DC suburb of North Bethesda, MD.

– Locally, masks are required for indoor events at Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, Perkinson Arts Center in Chester, the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, and Chamber Music Society of Central Virginia programs. Mask-wearing in other performance spaces – churches, galleries, playhouses, pubs – may be required or just recommended.

– Indoor masking is also the rule at Virginia Symphony Orchestra concerts in southeastern Virginia, concerts by the Roanoke and Williamsburg symphonies (Williamsburg requests that only fully vaccinated patrons attend), and events at the Ferguson Arts Center of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, the Academy of the Arts Historic Theater in Lynchburg, Virginia Tech’s Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg, and venues at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

– Richmond’s Altria Theater “strongly encourage[s]” patrons to wear masks. Currently, it allows presenters to “decide what they think is right for their fan base, and we will implement those requirements on their behalf, possibly including proof of vaccination, a negative Covid test, and face masks.” A similar policy is in effect at Norfolk’s Seven Venues, including Harrison Opera House, Chrysler Hall, Scope Arena and the Wells Theatre.

– Some college and university websites that I’ve checked detail safety requirements for students, faculty and staff, but are vague or blank about visitors. I would assume that most schools require masks at indoor events. Many campus facilities were closed to outsiders last year; presumably that would happen again if infections spike.

If you plan to attend an event outside Virginia and DC during the holidays, don’t assume that home rules are followed in the places you visit. Before making plans – certainly before buying tickets – check on safety requirements by calling box offices or checking websites of presenters and/or venues. The box office is more likely to be up-to-date than the website. (That’s true close to home as well.)

BASELINE GUIDELINE: Bring your vaccination card (I carry a copy in my wallet) or negative test documentation within the required time frame (two days before the event is optimal) and photo ID. Wear a mask indoors. Try to keep a safe distance (ideally, six feet) from people you didn’t come with. If you don’t feel well, don’t go.

As of December, Letter Vs monthly calendar includes primary Covid-19 safety protocols for each event. Check with presenters or venues for detailed requirements.

Lights out in Europe

(Updating an article first posted on Nov. 21)

The stage lights are going out all over Europe. And elsewhere? Soon?

As another wave of Covid-19 rolls across the continent, theaters in Amsterdam, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava, Leipzig and Dresden have shut down. The Bavarian State Opera in Munich has reduced available seating, and a number of venues, including the Berlin Philharmonie and La Scala in Milan, are turning away those lacking documentation that they’re fully vaccinated. Some theaters are requiring both proof of vaccination and an onsite negative test result prior to admission. Masking is back.

Street protests against safety mandates have been proliferating – most recently a big one in Switzerland, one of the last places anyone would expect to be a flashpoint of unrest.

All that preceded the arrival of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. First identified in South Africa, it is spreading in neighboring African states and has begun to appear in Great Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, Italy, Hong Kong and Australia. (The list is growing daily.) With anecdotal reports that it is more readily transmitted, and potentially infectious even to the fully vaccinated, Omicron threatens to hasten and prolong closures, not just of theaters and not just in Europe.

Nations across the world are banning flights from southern Africa and placing incoming travelers in quarantine. Israel has closed its borders to non-citizens. Morocco and Japan have suspended incoming international flights. Expect other countries to institute such measures.

“The fear factor has returned,” The Guardian’s Larry Elliott writes. He calls efforts to fend off Omicron once it has broken out “a classic case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

ABOUT OMICRON: The most informative, balanced and lay reader-friendly primer I’ve read on the new variant and its implications is by The Atlantic’s Katherine J. Wu, who interviews Emory University virologist Boghuma Kabisen Titanji on what we already know and what we have yet to learn about this latest Greek letter from hell. “What’s known so far absolutely warrants attention – not panic,” Wu writes:

UPDATE (Dec. 7): Dresden’s Semperoper will offer vaccinations and boosters to all comers next weekend, with doctors on hand to administer the shots while the opera company’s musicians serenade them. Saxony, the state that’s home to Dresden, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Germany, Norman Lebrecht reports on his Slipped Disc blog:

Opera house offers booster jabs with free music

Stephen Crout (1944-2021)

Stephen Crout, founder of Washington Concert Opera and longtime director of arts troupes in the DC area and Virginia, has died at 77.

A native of Elmira, NY, Crout trained as a pianist and singer, performing in both roles in New York’s Gregg Smith Singers in the 1970s. In 1980, he joined The Washington Opera (now Washington National Opera), becoming its chorus master. In 1986, he launched Washington Concert Opera to present works rarely staged in US opera houses. He cast his productions with young singers who went on to stellar careers, among them Renée Fleming, Denyce Graves and Ben Heppner.

From 1991 to 1993, Crout was artistic director at the Ash Lawn-Highland Festival, whose summer season featured operas staged in the boxwood garden of James Monroe’s hilltop estate near Charlottesville. The company subsequently evolved into Charlottesville Opera.

Crout was music director of The Washington Ballet from 1989 to 2001, and guest-conducted at Wolf Trap Opera, Virginia Opera and other opera and ballet companies.

An obituary by Francisco Salazar for Opera Wire:

Obitutary: Washington Concert Opera Founder Stephen Crout Dies at 77