What Will It Take to Reopen Venues? Conversation With Virologist Vincent Racaniello and Pasadena Playhouse’s Danny Feldman, Pt. 2

Jim recently chatted with virologist Vincent Racaniello and Pasadena Playhouse’s Danny Feldman about reopening live entertainment venues. You can watch the full chat here, or read on for an excerpt of their conversation (which we’ll post in two parts — click here for part 1). 

First, a little about Vincent: He is a Professor of Microbiology & Immunology in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University and has done laboratory research on viruses since 1975, specifically influenza viruses. He also writes a Virology Blog and hosts several podcasts about virology.

And a little about Danny: He joined Pasadena Playhouse in 2016. Overseeing both the artistic and business operations of the organization, he has worked to stabilize operations while ensuring the highest quality productions.

Jim: A couple of people have mentioned that perhaps it’s the responsibility or it’s incumbent upon the arts and entertainment community to advocate in some stronger way for more testing and tracing to be done. 

So far we’ve heard things like ‘take care of the cast, wash the seats, do the spacing,’ stuff like that, but it sounds like we’re sort of playing a bit of a shell game by doing that, instead of the testing and tracing. 

Danny: Maybe we turn our theaters into testing centers, or advocates for that, yeah. 

Vincent: Just like the states took care of the situation last month when the feds weren’t doing anything. So New York state and California and others said, ‘OK, we’re going to take charge of the situation’ and did their own testing. You as an industry should do that, and you can do it, and set an example. You test people, test your talent and so forth, you contact trace, if there is a case in your talent or audience, you see who they’ve been in contact with and show that you’re proactive. 

Jim: One issue that came up a minute ago is that the age of audience matters. It’s one thing to have a crowd of 23-year-olds, and they could be spreaders obviously, but in the theater setting, the average age is north of 50. And that raises the stakes on this at a different level. 

Vincent: Yes, that’s right, because we know that the older you are the more serious the infection is likely to be. 

So again, depending on the age, you’d have to find out if they’ve been infected, are they infected and can you reach a point where you can say, ‘no one in this auditorium is infected.’ If you could ensure that, I think it would go a long way. 

Jim: There’s an initiative by Apple and Google to use this tracing data, and combining that with testing could be useful. 

Vincent: I think this is essential. I’ve been talking to various people in different countries who think that the cell phone tracing and seeing where people are who have been infected, this is going to be the key in the next year to limiting transmission. Because that is a tool we have right in front of us that we’ve never had before in infectious diseases. We can see who’s infected and not, even who’s immune. So if you can use that as well, this would be essential. 

Danny: This made me think, at the Pasadena Playhouse we’ve been around a long time and we dug into the archives last week, and in 1918 we were performing at a different venue, at the Savoy Theater in Pasadena. And in the middle of the Spanish Flu our audiences were all wearing face masks, and the actors onstage were wearing masks. 

Vincent: Well, that’s an option I think, you could have your audience wear face masks, it would probably make them feel better.

Jim: Is it a psychological benefit or an actual benefit, the audience wearing face masks? 

Vincent: It’s an actual benefit for sure. We should have been wearing them back in January. We know that in other countries wearing face masks helped prevent the spread of infection. I think we’re getting used to it in this country, and it’s going to become a fashion statement at some point. We’ll have better looking masks, we already do, and people will be wearing them to the theater. And I think you should require it, at least in the beginning. It would be crazy not to. And I would probably keep the front few rows empty, there’s a lot of spit that goes flying toward those front rows. 

Jim: Some people are asking you to look into a crystal ball and predict what things will look like in January 2021? 

Vincent: In the winter, from a virological standpoint, this virus will probably be back. I have a feeling it will go away this summer in a big way, there will be some infections here and there, but it will be very low. But in the fall, October through March, it will be back, because it’s most likely going to be a winter illness for some time, so the numbers will probably go up. But it won’t be as bad because hospitals will learn how to take care of people and there will be more immunity in the population, so we’ll have fewer infections. 

Danny: This is part of the vulnerability that we’re all dealing with right now. The trouble with making plays, not just presenting plays, is that the runway and the process takes a very long time to do. To put teams together, to say we’ll be ready in September, we’d already need to be deep into this. 

So what most of my colleagues are doing, and what we’re doing at the Playhouse, is multiple scenario planning of a September start date, a January start date and beyond. And frankly, they all have pretty large ramifications on the institutions. Our business models are all about selling tickets, and when you take that ability away or change that into something else, it’s something we’ve not planned on doing before; there are no business continuity plans for this. So that’s something we’re all struggling with right now. 

Vincent: It’s going to take a pioneer to do an experiment, and this depends on how the transmission goes in the next few weeks, but if cases drop and hospitalizations drop, you could say, ‘let’s do a small production as an experiment.’ Because if it works and you keep it safe, then that gives a lot of momentum to the whole process. 

Jim: And that’s the dance that we’re going to have to do for some time, I think all of us who’ve strongly supported the idea of staying in, even we recognize that you can’t just sit inside forever. So there is the idea that something needs to happen, and whoever is first is going to look like they’re doing it too early, isn’t that right? 

Vincent: Yeah, I’m sure, but at some point the governors are going to say, ‘OK, you can congregate,’ and then it’s up to you to decide how to do that, and you have to play it safe like we’ve been talking about. 

Jim: Is there anything else we missed? Someone’s talking about doing drive-in theater, not just drive-in movies. 

Vincent: That’s a great idea, you stay in your car. That would work, it would be novel, but it would work. 

Jim: Danny, have you been planning any of that? 

Danny: Yeah, we have been talking about that. We have a parking lot behind us, we’re good. 

Jim: Anything you want to leave us with? 

Danny: I think we’re all in a collective moment of uncertainty, and it’s wildly uncomfortable, but it is our new normal. And I think that theater people are very creative and crafty and we can navigate through this in innovative and interesting ways, but I think the sooner we all believe and understand that this is not a flip of the switch, that this is an ongoing process, and get comfortable in that uncertainty, the better off all our venues will be. 

Jim: And Vincent, I think for me, one of the most novel ideas from this conversation in the context of the live entertainment community is the idea of advocating for testing and tracing. Would you echo that? 

Vincent: I totally agree that testing and tracing and records, cell phones, all the things that we’ve talked about, these are going to be essential, and so far they haven’t played a big role in the U.S., and they should’ve, because that’s part of how we could have contained this back in January, I hate to say it. So I totally endorse that, and I think your industry is unique in having to overcome this issue of having to get a lot of people together, but you can do it with some of these methods. 

So I would explore it, and keep an eye on how the trends are in infections on a weekly basis. And I will leave you with this: It’s gonna be over at some point, maybe sooner than later. A lot of people are working really hard, I would not worry too much about what you hear on the news, because they tend to get over excited about things and overreport every little thing that may not be important. But it’s gonna be over, and you’re gonna be OK. I’m sorry we’ve lost people, but hopefully, we’ll be ready for the next time. We should be able to be. 

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