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L.A. theaters and orchestras harden their rules: Vaccinations required, no exemptions

Masked people wait outside Walt Disney Concert Hall
The Los Angeles Philharmonic announced that it will require proof of vaccination for entry to its concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall. Taking a coronavirus test before a show will not be an alternative to vaccination.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles Philharmonic audience members will need to be fully vaccinated to attend concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall beginning Oct. 9.

That announcement Monday by the orchestra is the latest in a wave of similar declarations by performing arts groups signaling a hardening line on vaccination rules in the Southland: No longer is a negative coronavirus test an alternative to proof of vaccination at some venues — and that applies even to kids under 12, who are not yet eligible to receive the shots.

Hot vax summer hasn’t turned out as we’d hoped. The rise of the highly contagious Delta variant and the news that vaccinated individuals can still carry and transmit the disease have triggered a return of indoor mask mandates in Los Angeles County and upended the easy-breezy fall arts season many envisioned just a few months ago, when vaccination rates looked promising and infection rates were plummeting.

Federal and local officials have shied away from the vaccine mandates, an idea that divides the country as starkly along political lines as mask rules. But an increasing number of arts organizations are choosing to require proof of vaccination for entry to live performances, film festivals, premieres and awards shows like the Emmys.

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Two exemptions remain in the fine print of some groups’ policies: One for medical reasons, and one for closely held religious beliefs. People claiming either are typically asked to show proof of a negative PCR coronavirus test taken within 72 hours of the event they are attending. Kids under 12 are also allowed to show proof of a test at certain venues.

The religious exemption has been offered frequently at East Coast venues, including the 41 Broadway theaters in New York and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. There is no formal registration process for a person’s religious belief; theaters operate on the honor system and often ask to see negative PCR test results on paper or on a phone. Broadway theaters are also allowing rapid antigen tests taken within six hours of a performance.

Theater organizations in L.A. allowing for a religious exemption include the Hollywood Pantages, Geffen Playhouse, L.A. Theatre Works and Center Theatre Group, which is planning to reopen Nov. 30 at the Ahmanson.

But anecdotal evidence indicates a shift is underway. Los Angeles Master Chorale, which late last month was still allowing a testing exemption, now requires all patrons to show proof of full vaccination. Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which reopened Disney Hall in front of a vaccinated audience in June, remains committed to a strict vaccination-only policy.

“The public health data is quite clear that vaccines are overwhelmingly effective in protecting against the delta variant,” LACO Executive Director Ben Cadwallader said by email. “In addition to audiences, LACO musicians, guest artists, and staff will also be required to provide proof of vaccination for all public events.”

Other groups, particularly smaller theaters, are scrambling to figure out what policy will instill the most confidence in their audiences. After being closed for more than 18 months and banking on the fall for a comeback, struggling arts organizations want to do everything they can to soothe anxious nerves in small spaces.

“I am certainly about ready to just say, ‘You have to prove you’re vaccinated, and if not, sorry we cant let you in,” said Jon Lawrence Rivera, artistic director of the 99-seat company Playwrights’ Arena. “I have to talk to my lawyers and board to ask, ‘Is there somebody who is going to sue us and say we are discriminating?’”

These types of questions, including whether or not a theater could be held liable for an outbreak among a vaccinated crowd, and concerns about how easy it is to fake a vaccination card, loom large for leaders who have been treading water financially throughout the pandemic.

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When one loophole could prove fatal, many arts leaders say it just makes sense to require vaccination, period. Johnny Clark, artistic director of VS. Theatre Company, which is co-presenting an indoor show with Circle X Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre, said the production “Stand Up If You’re Here Tonight” is requiring proof of full vaccination, no exceptions.

“It was, ‘How do we make everybody feel as safe as we could?’ It’s hard enough to get people to come to theater in the best of times. Let’s control what we can control,” said Clark. “We need to make sure we offer a production we’re incredibly proud of, and everybody has to feel super comfortable going through the doors. If they’re not, it’s going to take away from their enjoyment of the show.”

Tim Wright, artistic director of Circle X, runs the Atwater Village Theatre complex, which has four stages and is used by a variety of small theater groups including the Echo Theatre Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles. He said that anyone using the site will have to abide by a strict vaccine policy.

“That’s what we have to do. I feel bad for folks who can’t get the vaccine and who want to come out, but the safest thing is to say, ‘If you’re vaccinated you can come, and you still have to wear a mask and be socially distanced,’” Wright said.

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The Fountain Theatre, which is operating a stage on its parking lot, also recently announced a strict vaccination policy.

“Our company has been fully vaccinated for months,” the group announced on social media. “The Fountain Theatre is now requiring proof of vaccination for all patrons for all future performances.”


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