Entertainment venues balance mask and vax mandates with patrons' attitudes

Entertainment venues balance mask and vax mandates with patrons' attitudes

In early August, the popular liberal comedian Hasan Minhaj performed for several hundred people at Capital Repertory Theatre in Albany. Per Minhaj's contract, audience members were required to wear masks while in the venue and have proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or recent negative test prior to admission. Those present estimate compliance was at or essentially 100 percent throughout, and theater officials said no one complained about the policies or asked for a refund.

A week later, the popular conservative comedian Nick DiPaolo  performed for several hundred people at Cohoes Music Hall in Cohoes, which has a policy requiring masks unless attendees are eating or drinking. It does not require proof of vaccination. DiPaolo's routine opened with an anti-mask screed, and his manager estimated that more than 90 percent of the crowd shed their faces coverings as soon as they sat down, some holding a beer, water bottle or candy bag to suggest they shouldn't have to re-mask.

And when The Egg in Albany announced that singer-songwriter Joan Osborne was requiring proof of vaccination or negative test from patrons in addition to the theater's mask mandate for Thursday's concert, about 10 percent of the audience demanded refunds, costing The Egg, as the show's presenter, about $2,000 in lost revenue, according to Executive Director Peter Lesser.

Like the country as a whole, local entertainment audiences remain deeply divided, usually along political lines, about mask and vaccination requirements as the fall theater season begins. While venues, desperate to reopen after almost a year and a half largely without ticket income, are loath to do anything that might alienate audiences, public health policies are again becoming more restrictive; and individual organizations, either in accommodation of artists' requests or out of their own desire to take measures to mitigate health risks to guests, staff and performers, are instituting even tighter measures.

Responses vary, from vitriol to gratitude. In mid-August, Schenectady-based Proctors announced on its Facebook page that, at least through mid-November, all audiences for ticketed, sit-down performances would be required to provide proof of vaccination or negative test and wear masks. The ensuing argument on its Facebook page ran to 300 comments, many negative. In contrast, The Rep, a subsidiary of Proctors, made the same announcement on its own Facebook page. A total 14 comments were submitted. All thanked the theater for its stance or were otherwise positive in tone.

Philip Morris, CEO of Proctors, speculated that difference was due in part to the broader reach of Proctors' Facebook page, with six times as many followers as The Rep's, and to the larger venue's expansive demographics, which more closely reflect those of society at large. Speaking broadly, The Rep tends to attract older audiences with progressive views to its own shows, and anti-mask/anti-vax adherents were few among fans of the left-leaning Minhaj, whose management rented the Albany theater for four performances to prepare for a 90-date tour of the U.S. and Canada, running from Sept. 17 to late March.

"Almost all of the time people are saying how thankful they are for what we're doing," said Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill, The Rep's producing artistic director, who has been among those verifying vaccination/test proof prior to allowing admission to performances of the The Rep's current show, "Ethel Waters: His Eye Is on the Sparrow," the first production in its new home at 251 N. Pearl St.

"We've been real sticklers about it," Mancinelli-Cahill said. Staff have helped patrons sign up for the Excelsior Pass, a state-sponsored electronic affirmation of vaccination stored on a smartphone, she said, and one out-of-towner was sent back to his hotel for his documents.

"He was angry when he left, but he was fine when he came back," Mancinelli-Cahill said.

Other theater audiences are less accommodating. In late August, Maine State Music Theatre said it would require vaccinations or recent negative tests for audiences during its new season at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center in Westbrook, Maine. Within five days, the theater had to refund $36,000 worth of tickets and canceled the rest of the fall schedule after it runs "Jersey Boys" this month.

With matters so fraught, misinterpretation and misunderstanding are bound to occur. For concerts presented at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in Saratoga Springs by the promoter Live Nation, policies are set by the artists performing. Neither masks nor vaccinations were required at the Aug. 28 show by Lynyrd Skynyrd. The night before, however, Live Nation checked for proof of vaccination status or a recent negative test and recommended masks be worn at all times, as stipulated by the headliners, Dead & Co.

Anticipating long lines because of screenings at Dead & Co., Dean Elsworth, of Loudonville, showed up two hours before showtime and received a wristband after offering vaccination proof prior to admission. During the concert, which he and his wife watched while masked from the lawn, they saw others with no wristbands. When he inquired of an unbanded person, Elsworth said, he was told screening lines had become so long that "they just stopped checking people," a decision concerning to Elsworth because his 11-year-old grandson, whom he sees regularly, is not yet eligible for vaccination.

Live Nation said wristbands were given to those who arrived early to facilitate their admission once the gates opened, but the banding processed stopped after access to the grounds was allowed. The company said all ticketed patrons were required to prove vaccination or recent negative test regardless of whether they received a wristband.

"That may be what they say, but it's not what we were told by someone who didn't have one," said Elsworth.

Live Nation, one of the world's biggest live-entertainment companies, has announced that it will require proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for all of its shows and venues starting Oct. 4.

Locally, when audiences are hostile to mask and vax mandates, a little finessing can usually smooth things over, said Owen Smith, producing artistic director of Playhouse Stage Company. It performs in Albany's Washington Park and in Cohoes Music Hall, which the company also manages as a venue for its own shows and those put on by outside promoters.

The DiPaolo crowd was almost universally anti-mask, and to say the comic himself was derisive about them would be a "huge understatement" said Tommy Nicchi, owner of The Comedy Works in Saratoga Springs, who is DiPaolo's manager and was the promoter renting the music hall for his Aug. 13 performance.

While few DiPaolo attendees wore masks once seated, Smith said, a gentle reminder as they moved through the lobby and elsewhere in the theater usually prompted patrons to refit their masks.

"We had to be continually reminding them, nicely, about it, but in general they were obeying our little-old-lady ushers," Smith said.

Conversation instead of confrontation proved beneficial with some of those denouncing Proctors online for its mask and vaccination policies, said Morris. He said he crossed-referenced negative commenters on Facebook with the theater's database and found most were not ticket holders. He emailed those who were current or past patrons to further explain Proctors' position.

"That actually worked pretty well," Morris said. Some of the correspondences became quite lengthy, with opponents sharing sources for the data on which they were basing their opinions and Morris responding in kind.

"I was glad for those exchanges," he said.

In general, venues offer full refunds if a ticket was purchased before mask or vaccination policies changed. Smith refused a refund for someone who bought a ticket months after Cohoes Music Hall's mask requirement was in place.

"He told me, 'I would rather sit at home and watch streaming content than sit there with a mask on,'" Smith said. "We've been doing it this way since May. ... I stuck to my guns. That ended with him saying, 'I wish you the worst luck possible.'"

Venue operators say that they expect regulations, from authorities and of their own devising, will continue to evolve as the pandemic stretches on. Nicchi said The Comedy Works, one of the few area venues that does not require masks, may implement them until patrons are seated if dictated by governments or rising infection rates. Smith said if allowing audiences to bring food and drink to their seats in Cohoes Music Hall becomes a future source of arguments about masks, he would consider shutting down the concession stand, despite the resultant revenue loss.

"We tell people, 'We get that you're annoyed, but we're doing what we can to try to keep the doors open,' and that usually works pretty well," Smith said. "We have to use our judgment. If we have to go to vaccinated-only (admission), we will. Every option is on the table."