While the extended intermission continues at The Straz and the earliest Broadway will open is January 2021, all due to COVID-19, performing arts administrators have been working with national health professionals to formulate reopening plans and safety protocols to put patrons back in the seats.
Since April, Straz COO Lorrin Shepard has chaired the Performing Arts Center Consortium’s Advisory Committee on Reopening. The PACC is a group of the largest performing arts centers from in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere New York to Australia that discusses matters of mutual concern related to multi-programming venues. C.J. Marshall, the Straz senior director of operations and Dionne Christian, special assistant to Shepard, also are on the committee.
Health professionals from the Cleveland Clinic and the Rodham Institute at George Washington University assisted in the developing the guide. Other resources include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, OSHA, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the World Health Organization.
The panel has been charged with developing strategies for resuming operations while simultaneously protecting the health and safety of staff, guests and artists. Touring companies, artists and unions, Shepard said, also are developing guidelines that will be coordinated with each venue’s protocols and requirements.
These efforts are no small task and made more difficult as some states – including Florida – are experiencing a resurgence in positive coronavirus tests.
On a personal level, Shepard also said it has been difficult to see how the uncertainty of these challenging times has affected the lives and livelihoods of the Straz staff – also reverberating across performing arts centers nationwide.
Shepard cites three major challenges to performing arts venues reopening:
- With social distancing recommended or required, it is not economically feasible for most performing arts venues to conduct their primary business. Finding a safe way to reopen without social distancing is problematic — rapid testing is being discussed as a way to eliminate the need for social distancing.
- Helping guests feel safe enough to return to mass gathering events. Among the solutions is communicating to patrons our medical authority-approved mitigation measures being implemented that hopefully will provide a level of comfort to guests.
- In collaboration with artists, touring companies and other outside entities, venues need to ensure safe and consistent protocols and process. It is important “everyone understands their responsibilities in this new environment,” Shepard said.
The first edition of the committee’s Guide to Reopening Theatrical Venues was released in June and includes guiding principles and guidelines, communication strategies, mitigation principles and risk assessments. It is a “living” document, continuing to evolve due to government and medical mandates and “to reflect changing circumstances and new information.”
The report to assist performing arts administrators in developing individualized reopening strategies for their venues stresses flexibility and “robust” communication to staff and the public it serves. The guide also serves as a tool for administrators as they talk with governing authorities charged with developing re-opening guidelines for venues that host “mass gatherings.”
“We are currently developing a dashboard to enable venues to measure the progress of various prerequisites for reopening, including vaccine and testing developments, public gathering conditions, and touring readiness,” Shepard said via email.
The guide lists risk assessments and exposure levels for staff and patrons, multiple mitigation principles including PPE, engineering and administrative controls and three suggested phases for venue reopening.
The reopening suggestions list potential mitigations for all areas (performance halls, staff offices, classrooms and rehearsal rooms) including stage door entry, valet parking, box office and ticket takers, security screening, sanitation, restrooms, food and bar service, retail sales, backstage and crew common areas, dressing rooms, loading dock, on stage, orchestra pit, guest building entry, common spaces and lobby, auditorium seating, intermission and end-of-performance exit from the auditoriums and more.
“Given what we have learned about COVID-19 and the spread of disease in general, our buildings will be much healthier,” Shepard said specifically about The Straz. He said air filtration and touchless technology for patrons and staff, too, is being addressed.
He also acknowledges that the performing arts and the guest experience will be very different when the doors reopen.
“Because we have been forced to find new ways to work, including new ways to teach and perform, the ways in which we connect and collaborate and the breadth of our social and professional networks have been forever changed and expanded,” Shepard said.
“We are working tirelessly to bring live theater back to our community. We look forward to the day when we can open our doors and welcome our guests back to a safe and joyful experience at the Straz Center.”