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The worst, it seems, is far from well behind us. 

Studies from Limelight Insights and Wolf Brown/AMS Analytics paint a sobering picture: as hopeful as our performing arts industry is for a jubilant return to live in-person performances this fall, our audiences are anxious, concerned and cautious.  

That’s much as expected. Live arts audiences are some of our most community-engaged citizens.

Last week’s head-snapping story from DC Metro Theater Arts on the latest Limelight Insights study reports that only half of D.C. theatre-goers surveyed are ready to return to live performance starting this October. And the well-regarded and much-discussed market research for orchestras from Wolf Brown shows additional cause for concern: back-sliding in patron comfortability in attending in-person cultural events as the Delta variant rages; growing concern over breakthrough infections; and a persistent segment of arts audiences – a full one-third in the Wolf Brown research – simply waiting for conditions to improve before going out again to in-person cultural events. In July, only 20% of those surveyed by Wolf Brown had attended an in-person cultural event, eithers outdoors or in, within the last two weeks. 

We have a long, long road to welcoming back our audiences at their pre-COVID attendance levels. 

But there’s reason for hope. What’s moving the needle for these patrons in both studies? Proof of vaccination.  

A full seventy percent in the Limelight study favored allowing only audience members vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend live performance events, while Wolf Brown’s research showed that, on the coasts, over two-thirds of those surveyed are more or only likely to attend with proof of vaccination policies in place. The Wolf Brown study also shared another interesting finding: 95% of respondents identified as having been fully vaccinated. Ninety-five percent! That is yet another indicator of the intelligence and care of our audiences. 

This issue is at our collective door, and in some regions, cultural venues are out in front, rolling out robust COVID-19 vaccination policies to promote optimally safe experiences for all who participate and attend. 

So it begs the question: where are our D.C. regional cultural venues and organizations in this conversation on vaccine requirements? And how could a regionally coordinated strategy be encouraged? 

We are, after all, the fifth largest arts-vibrant community in the country, with audiences shuttling across Virginia, D.C. and Maryland to attend world-class arts events. 

The question of venue requirements for proof of vaccination is especially acute for the hundreds of regional nonprofit cultural organizations like The Washington Chorus, where I serve as executive director, who produce in venues that we do not own. We rent concert halls, churches, performance spaces and theatres to produce concerts and community programs that reach over 25,000 audience members every season and – on this and other important safety considerations – are beholden to the decisions of our friends who own and operate these important venues. 

Broadway has announced a vaccination and masking requirement. Carnegie Hall has published their proof of vaccination policy. In the last few weeks, a rush of San Francisco Bay Area music venues have rolled out vaccination requirements. 

And yet, as of this writing, only a few theatres in the D.C. region have announced a proof of COVID-19 vaccination requirement. What about other cultural venues? Some believe this primarily to be a legal question, or perhaps more germanely, a financial one. To me, this is a character question. It’s a matter of respect. Its vital we give our artists, technicians, staff and audiences the full respect they so richly deserve. The respect of peace of mind, knowing that we take their personal health and safety, and that of their families, seriously. The respect evidenced by welcoming those who likewise respect themselves and their communities – and have the vaccination card to prove it. The respect of an optimally safe environment to experience the transformative power of live performance together.

The last 17 months have been emotionally shattering and economically devastating for all of us dedicated to live entertainment and the arts. For American performing arts workers, it’s meant some of the deepest earnings losses of any workers in any industry.  

Last week I sat in a room, live and in person in downtown Washington D.C. with 80 singers from The Washington Chorus, all of whom had presented proof of COVID-19 vaccination in order to gain access to our first indoors, in-person rehearsal since early March of 2020. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the chorus warmed up and raised their voices in emotionally evocative music from Mozart, Mendelssohn, and this perfectly selected spiritual from Melanie DeMore: “You gotta put one foot in front of the other,” the chorus bellowed out with real emotion, “and lead with love.”

The data couldn’t be clearer: in the D.C. metro region theres only more business upside than down to requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination at cultural venues.  

Our audiences and artists are increasingly ready to return and have overwhelmingly done the right thing by getting vaccinated. The thing rooted in respect. Now our venues across the D.C. region should very carefully consider doing the same.

Stephen Beaudoin is the executive director of The Washington Chorus, a cultural nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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