Sarasota arts venues juggle safety protocols and mask concerns as they reopen for new season

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Julie Leach, executive director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, sits with other masked audience members during a recent performance.

Complaints about COVID safety protocols and mask wearing at arts venues haven’t reached the level of vitriol heard at school board and other government meetings, but arts organizations say they have received an earful from callers about face mask requirements at concert, theater, opera and dance performances.

Arts leaders say the most strident complaints are coming from people who don’t attend their shows, and contrast with the large number of patrons who tell them they wouldn’t attend without the safety guidelines in place.

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As venues begin new seasons with indoor performances for the first time since an 18-month pandemic break, arts leaders are trying to navigate the same conflicting viewpoints that have made COVID safety protocols one of the most controversial and debated issues in the nation. In the process they are keeping people employed.

Even as local arts organizations joined together for a consistent set of safety guidelines in Sarasota, similar to standards used at other arts venues around the state, they have budgeted for lower attendance during the season until greater numbers of people feel safe gathering indoors. Several arts leaders have said it could take two or three years before attendance recovers to pre-pandemic levels.

From left, Travis Keith Battle, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, Jason Pintar and Ryan Morales are “The Wanderers,” a doo wop group presented in Florida Studio Theatre’s cabaret series.

In September, nine major Sarasota arts organizations approved the same safety protocols that are now being followed by more than 30 other groups in the community. They are based on state law, which bans businesses from requiring proof of vaccination, and follow the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.

But they have triggered an outcry through phone calls and emails about mask and testing requirements, and some complaints to the Florida Department of Health.

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“People are exercising their right to debate, but most of them are people who don’t come here at all,” said Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of Florida Studio Theatre. Hers was the first local arts venue to operate an extended run of shows under the #SafeArtsSarasota protocols that require a negative COVID-19 test (or proof of vaccine) and the wearing of face masks indoors.

“Everybody has the right to air their grievances, but I can’t get into that,” she said. “It’s hard enough running the theater without debating people who don’t even attend. My concern is for the people who do attend the theater.”

Several other arts organization leaders told the Herald-Tribune that most of the complaints they have received are from people who do not regularly attend their performances.

From left, Brian F. Finnerty, Debbi White, Jennifer Baker and Andrew Smiley star in the Players Centre production of “[title of show]” at Art Center Sarasota.

The Players Centre for Performing Arts and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe both opened their seasons in the last few weeks under the new safety protocols. Leaders from each group said most patrons have been showing vaccine cards instead of proof of a negative COVID test, and that the strongest resistance has been around face masks. 

Face mask complaints

“The masks are a bigger issue than the rest of the protocols,” Hopkins said. “That is very uncomfortable for people. Many feel it’s unnecessary because everyone is vaccinated or testing negative.”

William Skaggs, CEO of the Players Centre, which presented its first production of the season at Art Center Sarasota, said some patrons have expressed appreciation for the mask requirement “and others say they are vaccinated and perfectly comfortable in being in this space without a mask.”

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And there are other patrons for whom no amount of safety provisions matter.

“They just don’t want to come back yet,” said Julie Leach, executive director of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, which is presenting the musical revue “Eubie!” The usually sold-out theater company has been attracting fewer than 100 people per night so far.

Because of concerns about what the pandemic would allow them to produce, WBTT did not sell its usual subscription package at the start of the season and is relying on single ticket sales.

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“I think people were uncertain of what the health situation is going to be this year and they’re waiting until closer to when they want to go,” Leach said. “On the first few nights, I talked to patrons who said they felt comfortable with the protocols.”


She said there have been would-be patrons who found the protocols a “hassle,” while others were telling her they couldn’t attend “if we didn’t do something.” Once the #SafeArtsSarasota program was announced, “ticket sales started happening, not at the rate they did two years ago, but they were stronger than before,” she said.

Richard Russell, general director of the Sarasota Opera, which hosted concerts by the Artists Series Concerts of Sarasota and the Sarasota Orchestra in advance of his company’s season opening on Oct. 29, said the response to the protocols has “been almost overwhelmingly positive. We had to do a number of refunds and the negative calls are hard to take, especially when you know people who love opera think we shouldn’t be doing this. But they are for us, a significant minority.”

Subscription sales at Asolo Repertory Theatre, which opens its season with the musical “Hair” in mid-November, are down from two years ago “but not hugely,” said Managing Director Linda DiGabriele. The theater’s last fall musical was the family friendly “The Sound of Music” in 2019. “We are really encouraged by the rate of response from our subscribers.”

Keeping an eye on COVID numbers

The #SafeArts group is following the CDC COVID tracker and leaders said they hope when the rate in Sarasota County drops to “moderate” from the current substantial they might be able to alter the guidelines.

But some say they also have to keep an eye on the higher numbers in Manatee County, where many of their patrons live.

Even if the #SafeArts group as a whole decides to alter its safety protocols, masks will be required for The Sarasota Ballet for some time, said Executive Director Joseph Volpe.

“Most of my donors and subscribers feel positive about the protocols and wearing masks. There are those who do not want to wear masks,” he said. “If that’s the case, they won’t be coming to the ballet because we’re prepared to stick with this position until we feel quite sure that it’s ok to be unmasked. We know some people will be unhappy.”

He said he was extra wary because despite being double vaccinated he tested positive for COVID after a meeting with a colleague. 

Volpe expressed concern about asymptomatic vaccinated people “carrying the virus without even knowing it. Sitting shoulder to shoulder in the theater, they could spread it and we could have a super spreader incident in the theater.”

Safety in pre-show dining

Most theater venues have held off on selling drinks and snacks for the time being, but some are testing whether to allow patrons to buy drinks to consume outdoors before they enter the lobby.

In Florida Studio Theatre’s cabaret spaces, the company is encouraging patrons who want to eat or drink to arrive earlier than they might have in the past. Audience members are asked to remain masked unless they are actively eating or drinking during performances of “The Wanderers” in the Court Cabaret.

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Rebecca Hopkins is managing director of Florida Studio Theatre.

Hopkins said ticket sales are down overall, but because the shows have long runs of about 19 weeks, some subscribers have been able to reschedule their tickets for the end of the production.

Many of its subscribers purchased tickets two years ago for a season that didn’t happen and they were sent make-up tickets for the new lineup of shows.

Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, one of two Sarasota venues that were cited with complaints about protocols to the state Department of Health, said she has had some pushback on the safety measures but also “a number of people who said, “I wasn’t going to come but now that you have protocols I will come.”

Her hall presents shows involving members of Actors’ Equity Association, which has its own rules for vaccinations, testing and mask-wearing that theaters must comply with for the shows to go on.

“We want everyone to stay safe,” she said. “With the arts being one of the largest employers in Sarasota County and having a huge economic impact on Sarasota, I hope that everyone feels they’ve been missing the heart and soul of Sarasota for the last 16 months. We’re trying to bring people back to work and if we have to do this to keep people safe, that’s what we’ll try to do.”

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