Across the country, performing arts companies, festivals, venues – and artists – are having a conversation about the possibility of mandatory vaccinations. Should in-person audiences have to be vaccinated? What about staff and volunteers?
On Thursday, the Toronto Arts Council issued a statement calling for a vaccine pass. That same day in the U.S., the concert and live events promoter AEG Presents announced that it will require proof of full vaccination for all audiences and event staff in the U.S. Earlier, Broadway theatres and other performing arts venues in New York, including Carnegie Hall, announced that audiences will have to be vaccinated and masked.
As the country heads into what many are calling the fourth wave, this week has seen a flurry of vaccine mandate announcements – for Quebec, the federal public service, air and train travel, several Canadian universities, even Winnipeg Jets home games.
The Toronto International Film Festival will not require attendees to be vaccinated although masks will be required. However, talent, media and workers who interact with talent will be tested regularly.
Other arts organizations are still deliberating. In a statement Thursday, Vancouver Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Angela Elster said the VSO was “actively investigating” vaccine passports and how to implement their use in the concert hall, and she called for the government to provide leadership so there can be a simple and trustworthy system across the public event sector.
The Canadian Live Music Association, an Ottawa-based lobbying group for live music venues and promoters, released a statement to The Globe and Mail. “The CLMA strongly supports the development and use of vaccine passports, and urges government to develop and deploy a consistent approach. Canada’s live music industry wants to be at full capacity as soon as possible and get back to bringing amazing shows to fans from coast to coast to coast while keeping artists and audiences safe, and this is how we are going to be able to do that,” said President and CEO Erin Benjamin.
The Globe spoke with arts organizations and artists across the country about this evolving situation.
Although the co-frontman for the alt-country band Blue Rodeo applauds the well-publicized and controversial stance of American singer-songwriter Jason Isbell in insisting attendees show proof of COVID-19 vaccination at all his shows, Blue Rodeo fans at upcoming concert at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage later this month will not be subject to similar precautions. In accordance, with Ontario government guidelines, the outdoor amphitheatre venue is limited to 75 per-cent-capacity, which works out to 11,500 seats.
“It would be a lot easier if it were legislated by the government that you have to be double-vaccinated or have proof of a negative COVID test before you go into venues. People who prefer to remain unvaccinated need to accept responsibility for their actions and will need to be separated from people who are vaccinated.
There are people in my life who have chosen to be unvaccinated. I’d like to know that I was protected from those people. I keep thinking of somebody unvaccinated infecting me, and me infecting my mother, who is 94, and killing her. Whose fault is that?
When it comes to the band, we can control our backstage. At the amphitheatre, it’s basically locked down. Band will be separated. There will be no guests. So we feel protected. I think it matters, though, for our fans. For an outdoor show, it’s probably not as risky. But once we get indoors, where people are sharing air, we may have to figure some protocols out.”
Director & CEO, Toronto Arts Council
On Thursday, the Toronto Arts Council – the city’s primary arts funder – issued a call to action: “It is clear that this sector has been one of the hardest hit. Since March 2020 venues have been shuttered, artists thrown out of work and well over $100 million lost in ticket sales in Toronto alone.”
“For the arts and culture sector to get back on its feet, for audiences to feel safe about returning to indoor activities, it is truly the only option to have some kind of recognized proof of vaccination or proof of a negative Covid test. And when the Toronto Region Board of Trade came out with their Covid Safe Pass, it seemed to me that this was an excellent innovative solution that would alleviate anybody’s privacy concerns, but also allow arts organizations to open themselves up to the public.
Arts organizations in Toronto and across the country are working with very narrow margins and they are trying their very best to return to the public. I think now we’re in a phase where if people are ready to go back into theatres, they want to know that they’re in an environment where others are not going to give them Covid. It’s as simple as that.
I believe that we just all have to advocate to get it as soon as possible. Why wait until the last possible moment when we’re already in a dire crisis? There’s been a tremendous amount of benefit that the arts have delivered during this pandemic. And the arts sector has been the first to close practically, the hardest hit. Do they have to be the last to reopen because of a few stubborn people?”
Marcello Di Cintio
On Wednesday, the Calgary-based author of Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers, tweeted: “What would happen if Canadian authors touring this fall insisted that their in-person audiences were fully-vaccinated?”
“I listen to Marc Maron’s podcast. He’s on tour again and he’s insisting to the clubs he performs at that it’s all vaxxed audiences. He’s a big name; he can throw his weight around. Musicians have done the same sort of thing. I’m a writer and I’m not a big deal of a writer. I wonder if writers did make those requirements, almost like their rider, would the festivals and the venues accept that? And would audiences accept that?
If I was Atwood, I could say no one can come to my thing unless they’re jabbed. I’m sure every festival would say absolutely. But not me. I don’t have the pull.
I think cultural institutions need to stand up and be on the right side of things and take an ethical stand for the recovery of our greater community. It’s an expression of doing what’s right.
Even though maybe most author readings audiences are the type of people that already get vaccinated, that’s not the point. The point is just that we as a society have to make these kinds of changes, these kinds of restrictions, if only to stir everyone else into some sort of action.
If you want to be a member of the community, you have to roll up your sleeves and join the rest of us and stop being so selfish. That’s the message that comes through.”
Director of Music Programming, Harvest Music Festival
When it announced it would be mandating vaccinations for its attendees this September, the Fredericton music festival received criticism on social media platforms. Still according to festival director Brent Staeben, who holds a master's degree in epidemiology from Queen’s University, the feedback has been positive.
“When we announced our vaccination policy, we also offered ticket refunds. Since we did that, we’ve processed less than a dozen refunds. But we’ve also seen an uptick in ticket sales.
We felt this the strongest way to keep everybody safe. We surveyed our customers about this in May. We received 3,200 replies within 24 hours, with 90 per cent favouring a vaccination policy. It was a pretty good indication that our constituency was looking for this kind of action on our part.
We took the risk of bringing in American acts. That adds to the process. We’ve gotten a little bit of chafing on that. It’s more work for everybody. But these musicians are so anxious to get back on the road and back in front of audiences. It’s exciting for them.”
Executive Director, Shaw Festival
The Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario does not require vaccinations for staff or patrons. But masks are required for audiences. (Although, as Kelly Nestruck recently observed, audience members don’t always follow the rules.) https://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/theatre-and-performance/article-turn-off-your-cellphone-and-put-on-your-mask-its-up-to-audiences-to/
“There’s a real question still in Ontario whether we can ask the question under the Ontario Human Rights Act. So that’s been an ongoing discussion with the province: will they mandate a vaccine passport or not; will there be a model for a way to do that? If they do that, we’d be able to make use of that. But I have yet to see definitive information anywhere that says we’re allowed to ask that question of the public or even of our employees. They can volunteer the information and in our case, almost to a person our workers have volunteered the information and almost to a person have volunteered that they’ve been vaccinated. The other people have been working from home who probably just didn’t read their e-mail.
We’re doing twice weekly testing of all of our front line folks and artists and all of the people who interact with our artists, so several hundred people a week are getting a full test. And we’re doing that as part of a study with McMaster Health Sciences Centre.
Artistic Director, Vancouver Writers Fest
The VWF is planning a hybrid festival this October, with about one-third of its events completely in-person, one-third online and one-third with a live audience, a moderator and/or author(s) onstage and at least one guest beaming in from somewhere.
“Our program guide is, I’m excited to say, going to press on Friday; we’ve been working on it all summer. What our printed program guide says is that we’re asking those attending in person to be fully vaccinated, but to check our website for updates and our full safety protocol. So you’ll note that we’re asking those in attendance to be fully vaccinated.
But in the meantime, together with our board of directors, we’re investigating stronger language that would see us protecting audiences, authors and volunteers by requiring full immunization before attending events at our October festival. We’re an organization that understands that language matters. And there is a difference between asking and requiring.
I’ve had a lot of questions – from publishers, from authors and also from patrons – asking whether we’ve considered making vaccines mandatory. But nobody has firmly told me that they won’t attend [if they aren’t] at this point.
President and CEO, Arts Commons
The Calgary venue – home to theatre companies, performance venues and other communal spaces – is hosting an outdoor concert at neighbouring Olympic Plaza on Aug. 26. Attendance for Showtime: A Live Musical Presentation is free, but ticketed – and capped at 25 per cent capacity. Neither masks nor proof of vaccination will be required – although wearing a mask is encouraged. And staff will be wearing masks.
“We’re taking our cues from local and provincial government; we have to. It doesn’t mean we can’t go above and beyond. So with our outdoor concert the whole thing will be almost choreographed from an audience perspective and physical distancing. It will be ticketed so we can trace and track people. From a masking perspective, it’s a different beast because it’s outdoors.
We’re excited about the fact that there is hopefully a light at the end of the tunnel, but the two things I don’t want us to be at the centre of in the future is: I don’t want to look back and say, oh there was an outbreak at a cultural event – whether it was Arts Commons or not, that would be devastating. And the other thing that is happening in the U.S. and it’s only a matter of time before it starts happening here is a lot of international artists are going to start touring again. They will have in their contracts a clause that says that all front-of-house and back-of-house staff members of the venue they are performing in will have to be vaccinated. Broadway Across America is probably the single largest reason why so many performing arts centres in the U.S. have moved toward enforcing vaccination, because it literally means they get Hamilton – or not.
I don’t want to be in a position where we’re missing out on the ability of presenting certain artists or groups because they’ve baked it into their contract in a way that doesn’t allow us to meet it.
Peter Cathie White
Executive Director, The Arts Club Theatre Company
The Vancouver theatre company is not requiring vaccinations for its summer run of one-person shows. After Beneath Springhill: The Maurice Ruddick Story closes on Aug. 29, its theatres are dark until November, when Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol has its Canadian premiere.
“I’ve been pretty adamant about keeping our protocols the same as what the provincial health office has laid out. I would have no problem if there is a vaccine passport, because I want us to be open. We can’t be closed again; we just can’t afford to be closed again. But I need it in a system that’s easy to identify and understandable and that our patrons can buy into because it’s everywhere. I would be supportive of the way Quebec is planning to do this. I do think the province needs to set out what the system is – and it’s the same for everyone.
Whatever protects our staff and audience, that’s great. But I bristle against anything that presents the arts as this super dangerous thing while other activities are safe. I mean, are churches talking about it? I don’t consider the arts any more dangerous than going out to eat – and they’re not making people show they’re vaccinated.”
Jen Sookfong Lee
Vancouver author Jen Sookfong Lee launched her poetry collection The Shadow List at an online event this spring and for upcoming book festival events, she has chosen to appear online rather than in person. She feels safer that way – even though she misses connecting with her readers face-to-face. As for requiring audiences at readings to be vaccinated? She loves the idea – in theory.
I think it would be great if it were possible to enforce such a thing, but I do not think there’s any way. Then the onus is on the event organizers to enforce that and I don’t want to put them in that position; that’s my concern. I’m worried about people getting angry, just being asked. And you could put it in the event description, but are you really going to ask a writers festival volunteer to ask for evidence? Are you really going to do that?
The Canadian musician, who is from Montreal and now based in Nashville, is touring her recent release Outside Child this month. She has written an open letter to others in the industry, calling for a coalition of arts and creative workers to promote public health and safety at arts events.
“I’m not willing to play any show where there is not proof of full vaccination or negative Covid test within 72 hours plus masks upon entry. What I’m in the midst of is finding out if every venue and every artist that I’m opening for is on board with that and if not, I’m going to have to recuse myself from the shows that are not practising health and safety. Because I can’t look my daughter in the eye and say I contributed to this devastation.
We have to be listening to scientists and doctors. And if we don’t then we become exponential superspreaders if we continue to do our work and pretend it’s not a problem. And it’s not enough to me to have the backstage area be secure for the band. Does that mean we don’t have a care for the people who are coming to see us? ”
Carr, who lives in Toronto, is a vocalist and rhythm guitarist on the Wilderness of Manitoba’s upcoming album. Farewell to Cathedral, to be released in October. It was recorded during COVID, with the musicians all in the same building, but in separate studios. An album release party is planned for the Horseshoe in Toronto. Carr also has a day job in construction.
“ I think our current government has chosen so far to prioritize money over its people, which is appalling, frankly. The people who are going to be hardest hit when the fourth wave hits are going to be the people who are working the hardest, which definitely includes people working in the gig industry; everyone who’s making minimum wage who we like to disregard when we’re making big political decisions.
I am worried about the frontline workers, the people who take the tickets, all of the people who are involved. I think anyone working in the service industry in general has to make some really tough decisions right about now. It puts people in a really difficult spot. And to require a vaccine passport from someone who wants to come and enjoy a show is going to be I think the only way we can find a way forward.”
Executive director, Vancouver International Film Festival
VIFF is planning in-person screenings – with an online component – for its early October festival and it reopened its Vancity Theatre this summer.
“The reality is this is like trying to build a house on shifting sands and every time we look one direction, something else changes. So we are developing a numbers of scenarios and watching what our peers are doing, what the Public Health Office is saying, what festivals across the country are doing and trying to gage what we think is going to work best for our audience and our community. I think if you had asked me a month ago I probably would have had a fairly confident answer, but things are changing so rapidly.
Reopening [the theatre] was a major moment for us and a much needed morale boost. It’s been incredible to see our audience members and our volunteers return and to have that sort of hugely lacking sense of community return. But it is with caution and there’s a lot of anxiety.”
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
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