Sarasota arts organizations announce new indoor safety measures in response to COVID-19 surge

City attorney says Van Wezel’s inclusion in group does not violate state law

This is a banner on the website of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Image courtesy of the WBTT

With indoor performances and events beginning to take place in theaters and other venues across Sarasota County, leaders of nine of the major community arts organizations have announced updated health protocols in response to the COVID-19 surge. (See the related article in this issue.)

Those organizations are the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Circus Arts Conservatory, Florida Studio Theatre, The Hermitage Artist Retreat, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Orchestra, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, a news release notes.

“In response to … the current high community spread of the COVID-19 virus,” the release continues, leaders of those organizations have been sharing experiences and research from their March initiative #SafeArtsSarasota, “which helped enable local arts organizations to safely reopen to audiences after being shuttered through the pandemic,” the release notes.

The arts groups “will uphold robust health and safety protocols for the protection of the community, patrons, artists and staff, and to maintain the economic stability of local arts institutions,” the release says.

Therefore, effective Sunday, Sept. 26, all patrons age 12 and older attending a performance indoors must show either:

  • “A negative PCR COVID-19 test administered by a medical provider/official testing center no earlier than 72 hours before the time of their performance OR
  • “A negative rapid antigen COVID-19 test administered by a medical provider/official testing center no earlier than 24 hours prior to the time of their performance. Home testing kit results will not be accepted for entry,” the release points out.

Both physical and electronic presentation of documents will be accepted, it adds. “Photo identification must accompany the presentation of all documents.”

The Sarasota Ballet is one of the nine organizations. Image courtesy Sarasota Ballet

If patrons prefer, the release says, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or other official vaccination record showing a patron is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 “(at least 14 days since the final dose)” voluntarily may be presented at the door “as an acceptable alternative to negative COVID-19 test results,” the release adds.

Further, the release points out, “All patrons age 6 and up, regardless of vaccination or testing status, must wear masks over their nose and mouth at all times while inside the venue.”

“The arts and cultural organizations of Sarasota County comprise one of the three largest employment sectors of the community,” the news release notes. “An increasing number of patrons and artists are extremely uncomfortable participating without strong health and safety protocols in place. The failure to secure robust audiences or top artists puts these arts organizations in danger of once again closing their doors, jeopardizing thousands of jobs and millions of dollars that the arts infuse into the community each year,” the release explains.

This graphic shows the trends over five fiscal years, through 2019, regarding tourists’ attendance at arts and cultural events in Sarasota County. ‘TDC’ stands for the county’s Tourist Development Council. The County Commission each year awards grants to arts and cultural organizations to assist them in funding programs, with the goal of drawing more tourists to the community. Image courtesy Sarasota County

The nine organizations will work closely with the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, the release says, and they will invite other local arts organizations to join this initiative.

The protocols will be revisited, the release adds. They “may be revised based on CDC guidance and the evolving circumstances of the pandemic,” including use of additional screening measures, the release says.

“Patrons should check the individual websites of the arts organizations for details of protocols and refund policies,” the release adds. “Be assured the participating organizations are taking similar and additional pandemic precautions with artists, staff, crews and vendors,” it points out.

In a joint statement, the arts leaders said in the release, “Performing arts organizations have faced unprecedented challenges in this pandemic. Our sector has been unable to operate normally since March 2020. … Our economic and creative vitality depends on providing the safest possible environment for everyone.”

The nine organizations have been sending out individual notices this week to alert patrons to the protocols. In its announcement, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s founder, Nate Jacobs, and Executive Director Julie Leach wrote that they were pleased that the Troupe has joined with the eight others in adopting the “uniform protective measures for everyone’s safety.”

In its email blast to patrons, the Sarasota Ballet pointed out, “In light of the recent COVID-19 Delta variant-based resurgence, many patrons have requested stronger COVID protocols be established as a prerequisite for attending performances.”
The email added, “We appreciate your patience and understanding as we continue to address the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Resident objects to Van Wezel’s inclusion in group

The Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is located at 777 N. Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. File photo

The Sarasota News Leader did learn that one county resident complained to the Sarasota city commissioners on Sept. 14 about the inclusion of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in the group implementing the protocols. The city owns that venue.

The man asserted at first that the action “is in contradiction to City Policy and State directives.” Then he asked, “Is this accurate?”

Vice Mayor Erik Arroyo forwarded the email to City Manager Marlon Brown on Sept. 15, writing, “I agree.”

City Attorney Robert Fournier. File photo

Both Commissioners Liz Alpert and Jean Ahearn-Koch responded to the email writer, saying they were copying the city manager and staff, who could provide him the correct information.

Just after 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 15, City Attorney Robert Fournier replied to the resident, copying the commissioners and Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel.

“No, it is not accurate,” Fournier began. “The policy is to ask for proof of a negative COVID test. Proof of vaccination will be accepted in place of the negative test result, if offered. Proof of vaccination is not required.”

Fournier added, “The new state law says that certification of COVID-19 vaccination cannot be required as a condition of admission. The state law does not mention or limit the ability to ask for a negative COVID test. This policy for these entertainment venues was cleared with the Chief of Staff at the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee who advised that it would not be considered violative of state law. Based on this advice, other entertainment venues elsewhere in the state are following the same policy.”

Fournier then pointed out, “So, this does not violate a state directive as contained in the statute. Likewise, it does not contravene a City Policy because the City previously did not have a policy in place with regard to admissions at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. It is our understanding that the policy that will be followed does not contravene state law.”