The shows go on for local venues, even with COVID cases spiking again. But while most area concert and theater providers are taking precautions to limit the possible spread of the coronavirus as the omicron variant persists, others are letting the artists and their patrons decide.
“The Beacon Theatre does not require proof of vaccination nor a negative COVID test for entry for any Beacon event,” says Laurin Willis, general manager of the Hopewell venue, one of two major Richmond-area stages presenting performances with no coronavirus checking process in place. “We request that patrons wear a mask.”
While most marquee stages across the region continue to implement verification and testing protocols — The National, The Broadberry, Richmond Music Hall, The November Theatre and The Tin Pan, among others — conditions can be very different elsewhere.
“People can’t understand why we don’t have standard protocols across the board and I can understand that confusion,” says Tim Miller, the director of sales for ASM Richmond, which oversees the Dominion Energy Center and Altria Theater, which has a policy of letting the artist or promoter decide on an event’s COVID safety. “Our business model is such that we have to allow the promoters and the artists to determine what protocols they want to put in place. It can be difficult and confusing at times, I know.”
The Dominion Energy Center’s main stage, the 1,800-capacity Carpenter Theatre, plays host to the Richmond Symphony, the Richmond Ballet and Virginia Opera — all of which require proof of vaccination (or a negative COVID test) and enforce masking rules. But the same venue has hosted other concerts with a vastly different approach, such as the early December appearance by blues guitarist Joe Bonamassa that had no protocols in place, which was the artist’s choice. “We have shows where we require everything and shows where we require nothing and, yeah, we hear it from both sides,” Miller admits.
A forthcoming Carpenter appearance by country singer Clint Black and two Altria performances by comedians Katt Williams and Bert Kreischer will also have no protocols in place. At the same time, the Altria’s Broadway in Richmond productions of “Come From Away” and “The Lion King” will require patrons to show vaccination cards or proof of negative tests to gain admittance.
Miller says that different audiences feel differently about what protocols should be in place. “The promoters are probably best equipped to know what’s best for their audience. … if a promoter wishes to implement additional enhanced COVID-19 protocols for a show, we are here to help implement those requirements on their behalf. And if the governor were to mandate anything, obviously we would follow that mandate.”
“In general, most people have been happy that we are trying to keep everyone safe,” says Kira Hiller, the Richmond Symphony’s Head of Patron Services, of the RSO’s COVID admittance policies at the Carpenter and elsewhere. “I don’t think anyone really wants to wear a mask in a theater but they understand the reasons for it. And we have had people who were uncomfortable sharing vaccination information but it’s mostly been positive.”
On the other side of the protocol question, Beacon general manager Willis says that his patrons also appreciate its [no-vaccination card] policy. “It really runs about 9 to 1 with people for it. And that’s because they are turned down in other venues because of their vaccination policies. In general, people are thrilled with what it is that we’re doing here. I’m not going to get into politics or anything, but this is just where we are.”
Willis says that he’s following guidelines from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) — “we’re not just throwing everything to the wall,” he says. “If the CDC isn’t absolutely freaking out, we aren’t either.” But current CDC guidelines recommend that people not attend large gatherings where unvaccinated people can potentially congregate. However there is no mandate, or even a specific definition of what constitutes a large gathering, says Danny T.K. Avula, Director of the Richmond City and Henrico County Health Departments.
“The CDC says to avoid large gatherings, but there are no numerical definitions around that, so I think there’s probably some subjectivity that people are leaning into,” he adds. “Currently there are no regulations limiting any kind of group size. The CDC’s is a mild recommendation of the things you should avoid, so anything that’s done is done based on the organization’s preference and whether or not they are interested in following the CDC’s guidance, and frankly the CDC guidance has changed every couple of weeks. So it’s been hard to keep up with that.”
In late December, Griz, a Hampton Roads dance DJ, hosted a “Space Dance Party” at the Hampton Coliseum that had no vaccination or masking protocols. The result was that nearly two dozen people caught the virus from the event. “Currently, the decision to require masks, proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test upon entry to an event is at the discretion of the promoter and/or artist of each event” reads the Coliseum’s official policy, which is still in place.
Avula, Virginia’s former Vaccination Coordinator, confirms that the highly contagious omicron variant of COVID has pushed Virginia back to “high transmission” status (although there are signs at press time that the numbers have peaked). “Because omicron is so contagious, it is going to be incredibly difficult to contain its spread. Most of us are going to be exposed to Omicron in the next few weeks… it’s way more contagious even as it’s less severe than previous variants. That part, at least, is encouraging. But our health systems are feeling the strain with record high COVID hospitalizations. We just hit 26,000 in a single day. This time last year that number was 9,000.”
So, why, when the area is hitting another infectious wave of COVID, should we leave matters of public health up to the likes of Clint Black, Joe Bonamassa or Griz?
“I think it’s a reflection of where society is at with COVID,” Avula says. “We’ve gone far beyond the season where people are willing to have these things be limited. And there’s probably not going to be much appetite at any government level for restricting or regulating activity.”
It hasn’t just been patrons protesting vaccination policies. “We’ve had one or two acts that didn’t want to play with our restrictions,” says Lucas Fritz, the owner and talent buyer of the Broadberry Entertainment Group, whose venues — the Broadberry, The Camel, Richmond Music Hall and the Ashland Theater — all have a proof-of-vaccination policy. “It wasn’t clear if it was personal beliefs or if they just thought their audience wouldn’t come out.”
Lisa Harrison, owner of the Tin Pan, says that she’s had a few artists cancel out on shows because they refused to get vaccinated. “It’s unfortunate,” she says. “I’m not going to lash out. But it’s turned into this ridiculous political thing and it’s polarizing our community.” She’s also received “a plethora of nasty emails” about the Henrico club’s requirement of a vaccination card with photo ID for admittance (it no longer accepts negative tests). “I don’t engage with them. I respect their decision and at the same time they have to respect my decision as a businessperson. I mean, no one is putting a gun to your head and telling you to go to the Tin Pan.”
“We’ve had one or two nasty comments about our policy,” says Phil Whiteway, the managing director of Virginia Repertory Theatre. The venues that the stage company maintains, including the November Theatre, require proof-of-vaccination or a negative test for ticket holders. “The majority of people have thanked us for the policy. There might be a skirmish once a week.”
Are certain artists and bookers making a political point by refusing to require vaccinations? And are patrons doing the same thing by refusing to show proof?
“It definitely would seem like that,” says Fritz. “The genre of shows that bring more feedback about the COVID policy would lead me to believe that it’s along a partisan line. I would say to those folks, ‘hey, do you guys remember that 6-12 month period when there were no shows?’ We don’t want to go back to that. So if this is what we have to do so we can all go out safely to a concert, then it’s what we have to do.”
Below are official statements from selected area venues on their COVID protocols:
ASM Richmond (Altria Theater and Dominion Energy Center)
“ASM Richmond is committed to the health and safety of our patrons, guests, artists, performers, crew and staff. We have implemented best practices in cleanliness, sanitation, air filtration, and more throughout our venues. We are working closely with each artist, promoter, and resident company as they decide upcon COVID-19 policies with their patron base in mind. Please note, COVID-19 policies differ on a show-by-show basis. Please visit each event show page to review specific COVID-19 policies in place for entry.
“The Beacon Theatre does not require proof of vaccination nor negative Covid test for entry for any Beacon event. The Beacon Theatre requests that patrons wear a mask when attending events.”
Broadberry Entertainment Venues
“Entry to shows at The Broadberry, Richmond Music Hall, The Ashland Theater, The Camel, and Brown’s Island will require proof of complete COVID-19 vaccination OR a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hrs of doors opening for the show. Tests must be administered by or under the supervision of a medical professional. At-home tests will not be accepted.”
“All attendees will be required to show evidence of their full vaccination against COVID-19 OR produce a negative COVID-19 test (PCR or antigen — no ‘at home’ tests) taken within 72 hours prior to attending the event.”
Virginia Repertory Theatre (November Theatre, Barksdale Theatre, Theatre Gym at VCU)
“To provide the highest level of safety, all patrons are required to show proof of vaccination, OR proof that they have received a negative COVID test by a professional technician within 48 hours of the performance date/time. At home tests will not be accepted as we cannot confirm who took the test. Masks, covering the face and nose, are also required for all patrons while inside the venue.”
The Tin Pan
“The Tin Pan will be requiring proof of complete vaccination for ALL guests and will no longer be accepting negative Covid-19 tests. All patrons will be required to wear a mask upon entering and exiting the venue and when getting up to wander around the venue. If you do not have a mask, one will be provided for you.”
Robert E. Moss Theatre at Richmond Triangle Players
“Please bring a copy of your Covid-19 Vaccination Record Card or test statement (or a photo of the same on your phone) or you will not be allowed to enter the building. Everyone inside our building must wear a mask, regardless of status. You may lower your mask briefly while seated to enjoy your cocktail or other drink.”
“Guests who wish to attend any event at Gallery5 must show either a completed COVID-19 vaccination card or proof of a negative test taken within 72 hours of the event… Please wear your mask when interacting with staff.”
“Everyone who enters Firehouse must be fully vaccinated and wear a face mask.”