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Life & Style
Using Science to Keep the Arts Safe in Connecticut
Ted and Ruth Rossi at the recent mask giveaway event at Shoreline Arts Alliance (SAA) in Madison. Their family foundation, has given away more than 5.5 million masks in five states, along with other personal protective equipment. The Rossis, arts lovers who live in the Connecticut River valley, said they were excited about the event and SAA’s mission, transforming lives through the arts. “We hope we’re a small part of that,” Ted Rossi said. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
Rebekah Beaulieu, director of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, says advice from Sten Vermund, right, an arts lover who lives in Guilford who is also dean of the Yale School of Public Health, was instrumental in the ability of the museum to open. He scrutinized the museum’s filtration system, signage, and event protocols, among other measures. When the museum recently held an event for 200 people, “We did so with confidence,” she says. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
Dan McMahon from Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam hands a box of masks to Jeanne Sigel of the Garde Arts Center in New London. Sigel says the free masks, donated by the Rossi Foundation, were a bright spot in a “ridiculous, horrible” year for arts organizations. She says, however, that the connections and efforts arts organizations made to help each other survive were essential. “Lemons were hitting us like tennis balls, and we made lemonade,” she says. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
Volunteer Kit Wilcox of North Guilford helps David Flowers, the chief production officer at The Palace Theatre in Waterbury, load free masks donated by the Rossi Foundation into his car. The Palace was just about to kick off its first subscriber show since it due to the pandemic. He said the mask donation would help, “especially since we have not sold tickets in quite some time.” (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
Sten Vermund, the dean of the Yale School of Public Health who has worked with the Shoreline Arts Alliance to help arts venues reopen, talks with Krista May, the managing director of the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton. May says Vermund’s advice gave them the confidence they needed to reopen. “You said, ‘you can do this,’” she told Vermund. “You really gave us hope.” Ivoryton was among the earliest to reopen among arts venues in the state. (Photo by Pem McNerney/The Source)
At a recent arts festival fundraising event in Guilford, several volunteers were assigned to help check at the entrance for proof of vaccination or a recent COVID test. The volunteer coordinator for the night came up with a plan and sent it to the volunteers beforehand. Those who had purchased tickets had been informed that proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test would be required. Those who did not, could not, or would not comply would be denied entrance and refunded the $125 they paid for a ticket.
Three volunteers were assigned to check for proof of the records. The guests waiting for admittance sometimes fumbled a bit to find the vaccine record, but they remained good natured. The records were offered in a variety of forms, including flimsy, worn photocopies; official vaccine cards that had been laminated; cell phone photos; and records logged on fancy cell phone apps. Many said this was the first time they had been asked to present proof of vaccination. Sometimes the line got a bit backed up, but it was running smoothly.
Then, a guest was asked for her record and it was clear from the look of panic on her face that she did not have it. She left. About a half hour later she was back, this time with her vaccine card. The volunteers expressed their regret at having inconvenienced her. She said no apologies were needed.
“I’m glad you’re doing this,” she said. “It makes me feel safe.”
As we move into the fall and winter arts and performance season, with some venues opening their doors to indoor audiences for the first time since the pandemic hit, more and more venue operators are implementing strict vaccine checks and masking requirements. And they are often finding that, with few exceptions, the reaction is gratitude.
“On my God, the feedback on social media has been tremendous,” says Keith Mahler, who operates local indie concert promoter Manic Presents and Premier Concerts, which promotes major artists at venues that include College Street Music Hall in New Haven, the Palace Theater in Waterbury, the Space Ballroom in Hamden, and the Westville Music Bowl in New Haven. “Our requirements are clear cut. You need to be vaccinated or have a negative PCR test. That’s venue protocol. We use it for staff and crews, too, not just audiences. The response from music fans has been overwhelmingly positive. They like feeling safe and knowing everyone is vacced up.”
Alan Mann, the artistic director for the Opera Theater of Connecticut, says he’s found the same thing.
“Yes, yes! Of the maybe 200 times we’ve asked, we’ve had one complaint and one request for clarification,” he says. “It’s quite an amazing sign of the times.”
The process of keeping music fans, arts patrons, and theater goers safe remains a complicated one. Fortunately, there is support that is being provided by Madison-based Shoreline Arts Alliance (SAA), which has recorded a series of videos on science-based safety measures for arts venues, all of them free and easily available at www.shorelinearts.org.
This is part of SAA’s initiative called Reopening Connecticut Arts Venues: Science-Based Safety, which endeavors to provide “preparedness, consumer confidence, clarity for consumers.” Chaired by SAA Executive Director Eric Dillner, it is co-chaired by Sten Vermund, a Guilford resident and arts lover who is also dean of the Yale School of Public Health, a pediatrician, and an infectious disease epidemiologist.
What to Do, How to Tell People About It
As part of the initiative, Dillner, Vermund, and other task force members visited venues, both in person and via zoom, and gave them advice on matters that included entrance and exit doors, HVAC systems, air change rates, filter assemblies, masking requirements, and more. As important as making the venues safe, the task force also worked with venues on how to communicate with patrons and audiences so that they would understand requirements and know that inviting people back inside was being done in a way that was safe.
Dillner says the response to the Reopening Connecticut Arts Venues: Science-Based Safety initiative has been positive. So far the videos, which are free and available on demand, have received more than 15,000 views from 18 states and three countries.
“We’re just trying to offer clarity,” he says.
In addition to working with venue operators on health, safety, and technical requirements, the task force also is providing advice when it comes to vaccine and mask requirements.
When it comes to requiring vaccines, there is the sad fact that a public health safety measure has been twisted into a political and cultural punching bag. Even though some are refusing to get the vaccine, Dillner says some venues might have to require proof of vaccines before admitting patrons.
“It’s not a political thing, it’s a science thing,” he says. While the idea of excluding anyone is abhorrent, “realistically, our patrons need to feel comfortable. So sadly, for those who haven’t a vaccine, they may find themselves without art.”
‘I’m Trying To Keep You Safe’
Vermund says he’s a bit weary of people who claim vaccine and masking requirements are a way for the government to exert its power over people.
“It’s a dysfunctional narrative,” he says. “I’m not trying to control you with stop signs. I’m not trying to control you with speed limits...I”m trying to keep you safe.”
As for checking for vaccine status, that can be tricky since Connecticut is among the many states that have abdicated responsibility for developing a verifiable vaccine registry, as has the federal government. While some states and some countries are developing such systems, Connecticut venue operators are left with the responsibility of coming up with their own system, and sometimes having to hire additional people to enforce it.
Mahler of Premier Concerts says he’s had great success with an app called Bindle. Bindle describes itself as a “secure wallet for your health records and an easy way to privately share your COVID health status with others.” Bindle allows users to securely store both test results and vaccine certificates.
While the records are not verified by the health organizations that issued them, users must vouch for them and agree to run the risk of legal problems if they falsify records. Venues that are registered with Bindle can then make their requirements known through the app, and then verify the records using the app, also by using a cell phone.
Watch for Choke Points
As for mask requirements, the key thing for arts patrons is to follow whatever is asked by the venue operators, without making a fuss. Even people who have been vaccinated and who have no symptoms can pass the virus on, thanks to the Delta variant, which packs large viral loads in the nose and throat that can be spread by talking and laughing before symptoms appear.
Even in venues that don’t require masks, or for events that are held outside or under tents, masks can provide an extra layer of protection, particularly at choke points, such as entrances and exits, and places where food is being served, such as concession stands, and consumed.
But sometimes we forget our masks in the car or at home. And then it’s minutes until the curtain rises and the parking lot is a 15 minute walk away. That’s why many Connecticut venues will be offering free masks at the door for patrons who may have forgotten theirs.
This could have been just one more expense for cash-strapped operations, some of which haven’t sold a ticket in more than a year, but Ted and Ruth Rossi, arts lovers who live in the Connecticut River valley, decided to ride to the rescue. Through their family foundation, they recently donated a half a million masks to Connecticut arts venues. The masks were boxed up and delivered to the SAA offices in Madison recently, where venue operators gathered and, expressing gratitude for the donation and hopes for a successful fall and winter season, passed boxes hand to hand to each other as they loaded up their vehicles with the goods.
Rossi found out about the SAA’s efforts to help venue operators through his Rotary Club buddy, Madison resident Robert B. Friend, president and CEO of Live Entertainment Solutions Group. The half-million-mask donation is only the latest in more than 5.5 million his foundation has donated since the beginning of the pandemic, as part of the Rotary Club’s Million Mask Giveaway. Rossi’s day job is running the Rossi Group, which produces and sells hardwoods including white oak, red oak, maple, ash, and cherry to customers all over the world, including Asia. When the pandemic first hit and it seemed impossible to procure masks at all, even for first responders and front line health care workers, he watched all of the panic and pandemonium and became frustrated.
‘We Turned Our Staff Over To This’
“Masks and PPE were not being sourced expeditiously,” he said during a recent press conference at the SAA offices celebrating his family foundation’s donation. “But we have major markets in the far East and China. So we turned our staff over to this for a couple of weeks sourcing the masks and PPE. We were extremely successful. We made some great connections.”
Rossi says he considers the SAA-coordinated mask giveaway to arts venues in Connecticut “the finale, if you will, of the New England Rotary Million Mask Challenge,” which provided desperately needed masks in a five-state region. “That was all through Rotary. I heard about the SAA through my Rotarian friend Robert Friend of Madison. We said, ‘What can we do now?’ He said, ‘What about SAA?’ I said, ‘Find out what they need.’”
Friend, standing in the audience videotaping the proceedings, says that is what Rotary is all about.
“It’s a Rotary thing,” he said. “You roll up your sleeves. You go into the trenches and you do the work that needs to be done. You join arm in arm to do whatever needs to be done.”
Vermund says that if there continues to be progress when it comes to vaccine uptake and caution when it comes to measures like making buildings safe and wearing masks, there is room for hope that death rates will remain low.
“We are seeing a substantial decrease in severe COVID disease. We are going to continue to have infections, but the course of it will be so much more benign,” he says. “You and I are standing two feet apart and talking and we are not in terror of each other. That’s progress.”
He says the efforts of arts organizations to keep people safe mean we can feel good about attending events at venues that have made their buildings safe and that are requiring proof of vaccination or negative COVID tests.
“People can feel very comfortable about the Connecticut arts and arts organizations that are paying attention to risk mitigation,” Vermund says.