Venues Implement #SafeArtsSarasota Protocols

Todays News

Photo courtesy Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

For many Sarasota arts organizations, this weekend marked a return to traditional performances, but in the case of most of the region’s top organizations, but with a new set of safety protocols in place. Leaders within the institutions say that’s a based primarily on business needs.

“Everyone is ramping up to get back to indoor performance and a normal business environment,” said Julie Leach, executive director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. “But we were getting hesitancy from patrons in terms of coming back.”

Thus the #SafeArtsSarasota protocols came into being. According to the Arts and Cultural Alliance for Sarasota County, nine major arts organizations in the region agreed to apply uniform requirements on event goers. Those include requiring a negative PCR for COVID-19 administered by a medical professional within 72 hours of a performance or a negative rapid antigen test within the last 24 hours.  Patrons over age 12 who have been vaccinated for the virus alternately may produce records of their shots to bypass the requirement. Masks will be required indoors for patrons ages 6 and up.

“An increasing number of patrons and artists are extremely uncomfortable participating without strong health and safety protocols in place,” The Arts Alliance website explains. “The failure to secure robust audiences or top artists puts these arts organizations in danger of once again closing their doors, jeopardizing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars that the arts infuse into the community each year.”

The original groups to adopt rules included Asolo Repertory Theatre, Circus Arts Conservatory, Florida Studio Theatre, The Hermitage Artist Retreat, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Orchestra, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. But others like The Players Centre for Performing Arts and the Urbanite Theatre since joined in as well. At this point, more than 25 groups in Sarasota will apply the rules.

It took time to develop rules in part because of a law passed in Florida banning so-called “vaccine passports”, which stops businesses for denying service to individuals who do not receive a COVID-19 shot. That law has led to legal fights between the state of Florida and the cruise industry. But cultural leaders kept an eye on how other major promoters doing business in Florida such as Live Nation, which manages nationwide concert tours, responded to the law. The requirements locally derive in large part from rules national tour companies put in place to venues to work around the law.

“Because no one is required to show their vaccine card, they have the option of getting tested, my understanding is that there’s no concern about that ban,” said Amanda Heisey, marketing director for The Platers Centre.

The vaccine passport law passed in large part amid backlash against lockdown orders and local regulations regarding the pandemic. But as cultural season kicks into gear, leaders say it’s market demand that drove creation of guidelines. That said, the concern in the populace seems in direct response to a shift in the pandemic. A delta variant of the coronavirus fueled a surge in infections in the fall that’s only now beginning to wane. Sarasota Memorial Hospital still reported 137 inpatients with COVID-19 as of Saturday, 54 of those in intensive care. To date, 464 COVID-19 patients have died in the hospital since last March.

Leach said if not for the surge, demand for test requirements and masks may not be so prevalent. While she said the new protocols promoted three calls from customers who wouldn’t attend shows with these rules in place, including one normal season subscriber, the announcement otherwise prompted a spike in sales. WCBTT has been selling between 20 and 25 tickets a day for “Eubie!,” its first indoor show since the pandemic which opens Oct. 6.

The fact Florida made national news for the surge hitting the state disproportionately hard also created other demands for companies. Outside talent from places like New York City voiced grave concerns coming to perform in a place with no protocols. “When the top headline above the fold in the New York Times is all about the COVID surge in Florida, it doesn’t make you want to come here,” Leach said.

Photo courtesy Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

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