Using Science to Protect the Arts in Connecticut

Opera theater

By Pem McNerney / • 06/10/2021 07:00 EST

At a recent arts festival fundraising event in Guilford, several volunteers were assigned to help check entry for proof of vaccination or a recent COVID test. The volunteer coordinator for the night made a plan and sent it to the volunteers beforehand. Those who had purchased tickets were told that proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test would be required. Those who did not, could not or would not have complied would have been refused entry and refunded the $ 125 they paid for a ticket.

Three volunteers were assigned to verify the evidence of the records. The guests awaiting admission sometimes fumbled a bit to find the vaccination record, but they remained in a good mood. The files were available in various formats, including fragile and worn photocopies; official vaccination cards that had been laminated; cell phone photos; and recordings recorded on sophisticated mobile phone applications. Many said it was the first time they were asked to show proof of vaccination. Sometimes the line would go back a bit, but it was working fine.

Then a guest was asked for her file and it was clear by the panicked look on her face that she didn’t have it. She left. About half an hour later, she was back, this time with her vaccination card. The volunteers expressed their regret at having inconvenienced her. She said no apology was needed.

– I’m glad you’re doing this, she said. “It makes me feel safe. “

Huge comments

As we enter the fall and winter arts and performance season, with some venues opening their doors to the indoor public for the first time since the start of the pandemic, more venue operators are highlighting implement strict vaccine controls and masking requirements. And they often find that, with a few exceptions, the reaction is gratitude.

“My God, the social media comments have been great,” said Keith Mahler, who runs local independent concert promoter Manic Presents and Premier Concerts, which promotes major artists at venues such as College Street Music Hall in New York. Haven, the Palace Theater in Waterbury, the Space Ballroom in Hamden, and the Westville Music Bowl in New Haven. “Our requirements are clear. You must be vaccinated or have a negative PCR test. It is the protocol of the place. We also use it for staff and teams, not just the public. The response from music fans has been overwhelmingly positive. They like to feel safe and know that everyone is evacuated. “

Alan Mann, artistic director of the Opera Theater of Connecticut, says he found the same thing.

“Yes yes! Of the 200 or so times we have asked, we have had a complaint and a request for clarification,” he said. “This is a pretty amazing sign of the times.

The process of protecting music fans, patrons and theatergoers remains complicated. Fortunately, there is support provided by Madison-based Shoreline Arts Alliance (SAA) who have recorded a series of videos on science-based security measures for art venues, all free and readily available at www.

This is part of SAA’s initiative Reopening Connecticut Arts Venues: Science-Based Safety, which strives to provide “readiness, consumer confidence, clarity for consumers.” Chaired by SAA Executive Director Eric Dillner, it is co-chaired by Sten Vermund, a Guilford resident and art lover who is also Dean of the Yale School of Public Health, pediatrician and infectious disease epidemiologist.

What to do, how to tell people about it

As part of the initiative, Dillner, Vermund and other members of the working group toured the sites, both in person and by zoom, and gave them advice on issues such as entry doors. and outlet, HVAC systems, air change rates, filter assemblies, masking requirements, and more. As important as making the places safe, the task force also worked with the places on how to communicate with customers and the public so that they understand the requirements and know that inviting people inside is done. in a safe manner.

Dillner says the response to Connecticut’s Art Venues Reopening Science-Based Safety initiative has been positive. So far, the videos, free and available on demand, have been viewed more than 15,000 times in 18 states and three countries.

“We’re just trying to provide clarity,” he says.

In addition to working with site operators on health, safety and technical requirements, the working group also provides advice regarding vaccine and mask requirements.

When it comes to demanding vaccines, there is the sad fact that a public health security measure has been twisted into a political and cultural punching bag. Even though some refuse to be vaccinated, Dillner says some sites may need to require proof of vaccine before admitting clients.

“It’s not a political question, it’s a scientific question,” he said. While the idea of ​​excluding anyone is obnoxious, “in reality, our customers have to be comfortable. Unfortunately, for those who don’t have a vaccine, they may find themselves without art. “

“I’m trying to protect you”

Vermund says he’s a little tired of people claiming that vaccine and mask requirements are a way for the government to exert power over people.

“It’s a dysfunctional narrative,” he says. “I’m not trying to control you with stop signs. I’m not trying to control you with speed limits … I’m trying to keep you safe.

As for verifying vaccine status, this can be tricky as Connecticut is one of many states that have abdicated responsibility for developing a verifiable vaccine registry, just like the federal government. While some states and countries are developing such systems, Connecticut site operators have the responsibility of creating their own system and sometimes hiring additional people to enforce it.

Mahler of Premier Concerts says he’s had great success with an app called Bindle. Bindle describes itself as a “secure wallet for your medical records and an easy way to privately share your COVID condition with others.” Bindle allows users to securely store test results and vaccine certificates.

Although the records are not verified by the health organizations that issued them, users must vouch for them and accept the risk of legal problems if they tamper with the records. Sites registered with Bindle can then advertise their requirements through the app and then verify the records using the app, also using a mobile phone.

Watch for choke points

When it comes to mask requirements, the main thing for patrons is to follow whatever is requested by theater operators, without making a fuss. Even people who have been vaccinated and have no symptoms can transmit the virus, thanks to the Delta variant, which contains large viral loads in the nose and throat that can be spread by talking and laughing before the onset. symptoms.

Even in venues that do not require masks, or for events that take place outdoors or in tents, masks can provide an extra layer of protection, especially at choke points, such as entryways and outlets, and places where food is served, such as in concession, and consumed.

But sometimes we forget our masks in the car or at home. And then there are only a few minutes left until the curtain goes up and the parking lot is a 15 minute walk away. That’s why many Connecticut locations will offer free face masks at the door for customers who may have forgotten theirs.

It could have been just one more expense on cash-strapped operations, some of which haven’t sold tickets for over a year, but Ted and Ruth Rossi, art lovers who live in the Connecticut River Valley, decided to go to rescue. Through their family foundation, they recently donated half a million masks to art venues in Connecticut. The masks were wrapped and delivered recently to the SAA offices in Madison, where the site operators gathered and, expressing their gratitude for the donation and hope for a successful fall and winter season, the boxes passed. hand in hand as they loaded their vehicles. with the goods.

Rossi learned about SAA’s efforts to help theater operators through his Rotary Club friend Robert B. Friend, resident of Madison, president and CEO of Live Entertainment Solutions Group. The donation of half a million masks is just the latest of more than 5.5 million his foundation has given since the start of the pandemic, as part of the Rotary Club’s Million Mask Giveaway. Rossi’s day-to-day job is to lead the Rossi Group, which produces and sells hardwoods including white oak, red oak, maple, ash and cherry to customers all over the world, including in Asia. . When the pandemic first struck and it seemed impossible to get hold of masks, even for first responders and frontline healthcare workers, he watched all the panic and pandemonium and became frustrated.

“We have entrusted our staff to this”

“Masks and PPE were not bought quickly,” he said at a recent press conference at SAA offices celebrating the donation from his family foundation. “But we have important markets in the Far East and in China. We therefore entrusted our staff for a few weeks with the supply of masks and PPE. We have had great success. We have established a very good relationship. “

Rossi says he considers the SAA’s coordinated mask donation to Connecticut art venues “the final, if you will, of the New England Rotary Million Mask Challenge,” which provided desperately needed masks in a region of five. States. “It was throughout Rotary. I heard about SAA from my Rotarian friend Robert Friend of Madison. We said, “What can we do now? He said, “What about the SAA? I said, “Find out what they need. “

A friend, standing in the audience and filming the proceedings, says that is what Rotary is all about.

“It’s a Rotary thing,” he said. “You roll up your sleeves. You go into the trenches and you do the work that needs to be done. You come together arm in arm to do whatever needs to be done.

Vermund says that while there continues to be advances in immunization and caution when it comes to measures such as building security and wearing masks, there is reason to hope that rates of mortality will remain low.

“We are seeing a substantial decrease in severe COVID disease. We will continue to have infections, but the evolution will be so much milder, ”he says. “You and I stand two feet apart and talk and we’re not afraid of each other. It is progress.

He says the efforts of arts organizations to keep people safe means we can feel good attending events in places that have made their buildings safe and that require proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests.

“People can feel very comfortable with Connecticut arts and arts organizations that pay attention to risk mitigation,” Vermund said.