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As pandemic protocols loosen, concert and theater venues struggle to balance safety moving forward

Performers with the New Cabaret Classics production earlier this month at Haywood Arts Repertory Theater in Waynesville. The theater dropped masking protocols for these shows.
Courtesy of Haywood Arts Regional Theater
Performers with the New Cabaret Classics production earlier this month at Haywood Arts Regional Theater in Waynesville. The theater dropped masking protocols for these shows.

When performing arts venues tested the waters of reopening a year ago, policies were consistent across the board: Seats were distanced and limited and masks were mandatory. Once vaccinations were widely available, anyone attending needed to either provide proof of their shots or negative test results.

But as COVID numbers drop and protocols loosen, theater and concert venue policies are all over the map. Some require vaccinations and masks. Others require neither. Some are strict enforcers of whatever policies they put in place, others not so much.

“It’s been complicated,” said Steven Lloyd, executive director of Haywood Arts Regional Theatre in Waynesville, better known as HART.

“For all of us who are in this industry, being shut down for 15 months was traumatic and we don’t want to go back there,” he said. “So theaters have tried to bend over backwards to make sure we’re not hotspots.”

But that effort has been a tightrope walk where the ground can shift from any given week to the next.

When HART reopened last year, Lloyd said, shows had masked rehearsals but unmasked performances except for fully masked youth productions. By July, no restrictions were in place, but that changed the following month when Covid numbers went up again. Mask requirements remained on paper only and weren’t enforced. There were no vaccination requirements until the theater’s New Classics Cabaret over two weekends earlier this month where eating and drinking made masking impractical, so staff instead checked for vaccinations or negative test results.

“The whole masking and vaccination issue has been politicized,” he said. “I can’t put my staff in danger of dealing with altercations with people. If they’re not going to comply with what we’re asking them to do, there’s not much we can do. We really don’t want to be calling the police.”

The issue came to a head this month at Asheville Community Theatre, when the board instituted a protocol of requiring vaccinations or negative test results only for Friday and Saturday performances, leaving only masking requirements for Thursday and Sunday shows. Company managers acknowledge a fierce debate with some performers over the change led management to replace a third of the cast for the current show, “Fight Girl Battle World.”

Managing Director Tamara Sparacino said some board members didn’t feel comfortable attending shows with only a masking requirement, leading to the staggered protocols in place now.

“Our whole purpose and mission and vision is that everyone is welcome here, so that was really the reasoning behind this whole policy,” she said.

Earlier this month, the Orange Peel dropped vaccination protocols unless an artist requires them. The same policy is in place at Harrah’s Cherokee Center, which has a masking policy of “encouraged but not required.”

“We try to really kind of find a nice happy medium place, not just for our guests but also for the artists that are coming in,” said Matthieu Rodriguez, the center’s marketing coordinator. “It’s always a working movement to get that happy spot.”

Despite other venues loosening their protocols, Asheville’s Magnetic Theatre has stayed consistent requiring audiences to be vaccinated or show negative test results, along with wearing masks.

“All artistic directors have a unique challenge with their communities,” said Katie Jones, the Magnetic’s artistic director.

“At some theaters, audience members get angry if they have to wear a mask, because it’s like ‘C’mon, this has been lifted nationwide. Why are we still doing this?’ Whereas our audiences are more likely to be angry if we don’t have requirements,” she said. “I can understand the reasoning behind any decision that is made.”

All managers seemed in agreement on at least one thing: clear and consistent communication with audiences and performers is key.