Going to a show in Sarasota? You will have to be tested or vaccinated and wear a mask

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
During the winter and spring, patrons were required to wear masks and sit in socially distanced seats for outdoor performances at Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Terrace Stage.

If you want to see a play or attend a concert, ballet, circus or opera performance this fall, you will have to wear a mask and show proof of a negative COVID-19 test or that you’re fully vaccinated as you arrive at theaters.

Nine of the area’s largest performing arts groups announced Monday they will follow a uniform set of safety protocols beginning Sept. 26 as a new cultural season gets underway.

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“Performing arts organizations have faced unprecedented challenges in this pandemic,” the group said in a statement. “Our sector has been unable to operate normally since March 2020. Since the arts community is a major economic driver for the Suncoast, our organizations are working collaboratively to ensure that our patrons can continue to safely experience the joy of live performances, and we can keep our artists and our staff employed. Our economic and creative vitality depends on providing the safest possible environment for everyone.”

The protocols were announced by Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Circus Arts Conservatory, Florida Studio Theatre, Hermitage Artist Retreat, The Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Orchestra, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.  Leaders of these organizations said they also will be reaching out to other performing arts groups and expect many to sign on to the same protocols.

“We want to be as consistent as possible so our patrons know what to expect,” said Richard Russell, general director of Sarasota Opera.

Richard Russell is the general director of the Sarasota Opera, which announced safety protocols for fall shows.

To attend an indoor performance presented by any of these organizations, all patrons 12 and older must show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of a performance for a PCR test or 24 hours for an antigen or rapid test.

“The test must have been done by a certified medical provider or testing center, not an at-home test,” said Linda DiGabriele, managing director of Asolo Rep. Photo IDs will be required and test results may be electronic or paper copies.

As an alternative, patrons may show proof they have been fully vaccinated for at least 14 days to bypass the testing requirements.

All patrons age 6 and older must also wear masks at all times inside the buildings.

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“This is similar to what many groups and businesses are doing all over the country,” DiGabriele said. By state law, the organizations can not require proof of vaccination before admitting patrons.

“We want to make sure we’re within the regulations of the state statute. This is not a political issue, it’s a health and safety issue, and we want to stay open and performing,” she said.

Last season, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe performed shows in  its parking lot where patrons were required to wear masks. As indoor performances resume, Sarasota arts organizations are establishing safety protocols that include masks and negative COVID tests.

The new safety measures are similar to those taken at Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami, the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando, and the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.

As the COVID situation changes, the group will revisit the requirements.

“At this point, we don’t have a number where we’re going to turn the switch and not require masks,” Russell said. “We are meeting regularly, and we look at the data from the Centers for Disease Control and what is going on throughout the country.”

Arts groups collaborate in pandemic

The new protocols were developed during meetings with leaders of the nine organizations as an extension of their #SafeArtsSarasota initiative, which was launched in March in collaboration with the Arts & Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County.

“We instinctively reached out to each other when everything was closing down to share information and stories and support each other,” DiGabriele said. “It was a natural progression for this same group to come together and say we want the community to understand that they’ll be safe at the theater, and we need them to understand we need them to help us be safe.”

The protocols address requirements by some of the unions involved in their performances, including the Actors’ Equity Association and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Linda DiGabriele is managing director of Asolo Repertory Theatre.

For Van Wezel, it also avoids the issue of varying protocols for different types of performances. The hall would be required to have masked patrons on nights with Actors’ Equity shows, but other artists or programs may not have such requirements. 

“By making our messaging the same, it’s clear for the public. We want to avoid any confusion,” said Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of Florida Studio Theatre. “Nobody likes to make these decisions in a vacuum. We’ve been talking to each other and using our national and statewide connections to bring information back to this group.”

Even though arts leaders said internal surveys indicate that more than 90% of their patrons are vaccinated, they have heard from some that they will cancel existing tickets or hold off on buying seats because of the surge of COVID cases.

DiGabriele said there may be some patrons who protest the requirements, but “I think people are going to be very excited and very happy about it. We have observed in other places where this kind of action has increased ticket sales enormously. It’s certainly true in New York City. There will be a few people who will not be happy about it.”

Each organization will handle logistics at theater entry points in different ways. At the Sarasota Opera House, for example, Russell said staff members, not volunteer ushers, will be checking for testing or vaccine proof before patrons take their seats.

“This is about protecting our patrons but also about protecting our artists and staffs,” DiGabriele said. “It will be much more difficult to explicit the caliber of artists we want to attract in Sarasota if we didn’t have these protocols. Look at the hundreds of teachers who are out and the hundreds of police. If half your cast is out, you’re done.”

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