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

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). 

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: In mid-March, our industry came to a screeching halt. What expectations for reopening venues are realistic, and what things can venues do that will make a difference? 

Vincent: I think we need to be patient, because your industry, and bringing a lot of people in a big room together, that’s how this virus is spread. I’m sorry to say that doing that isn’t going to happen right now. As you know, they just reopened Georgia, and a lot of people didn’t go to restaurants, they’re wary, and I don’t blame them. And so if you opened tomorrow, I’m not sure if you’d fill a room. 

Right now, all the numbers are declining in many places and people are looking at that as a sign that we should be returning back to normalcy. And you have to balance, right? Because on the one hand, you don’t want to overburden the hospitals. That’s really the key, you don’t want too many people to get infected. 

But on the other hand, you can’t keep life shutdown forever. You have to have a balance. So I think we’re at a point where we can start thinking about going back, but you have to do it gradually, in steps. And we have to understand that the virus is still around and more importantly, the virus has infected very few people and so there’s still a lot of people left for the virus to infect. And we have to get to something like 70-80% of people infected before it won’t be able to circulate anymore, and that’s some time away. 

So in the meantime, we can still think about going back, but we have to do a few things. First, we have to be testing a lot more. Because you can imagine having an event where you can’t get in unless you test negative. And that’s where cell phone apps can come into play, to see who around you has been infected or not, I think we have to work on that a lot. 

And if someone’s been infected, we have to trace everybody they’ve been in touch with and quarantine them. And we haven’t been very effective at doing that since January at all. 

And this is what China and South Korea did very effectively. South Korea never shut down their economy, they figured out a way to balance. So I take a lesson from them, what did they do and how can we emulate that at this point? 

They shut down schools because that’s where a lot of transmission happens. But if you do more testing and more contact tracing, more mask wearing, and use cell phone apps to track people, I think that starts to get back to normalcy. 

But we can’t do it all overnight. Businesses can’t have all 1,000 employees come back at once, you have to do it in steps. That’s my general thinking, and I’d be curious as to how you could do that in a venue setting. 

Jim: Danny, I know you have been super engaged with the leaders of the theater world in L.A. and beyond. How in line are they in the understanding of the situation? 

Danny: It’s a little bit all over the map. We have some people on the wishful thinking side, who have memberships or subscriptions on sale for this fall. And not all of the summer events have been canceled yet, but then other venues are saying they’re not going to be back until January soonest. 

Because what I think a lot of us are wrestling with, is that our current business models do not have room for socially distancing in our venues. As most people know, particularly in the theater business, our models don’t work anyway. We’re underwater in a lot of ways, relying on donors. 

Our full capacity doesn’t do it, it’s all subsidized in some way. And there’s the burden of that subsidy growing and having the audience income go down, but we don’t necessarily see our cost structure changing dramatically to account for this. 

And that doesn’t even take into account the experience that an audience comes to for live entertainment. It’s all about the audience, being in a room full of people. We’ve all been to a play where there’s a third of the house, and it’s not the most enjoyable experience. 

So it’s all across the map on what I’ve been hearing from colleagues all around the country, but what everyone I think knows is that the gradual rollout, the sort of turning up the volume of back to normalcy, we all recognize that we are at the end of that game. We are not at the front of that, we’re at the very end of that. And the faster venues come to terms with that and figure out what to do in the meantime is important. 

Jim: Would you agree with that Vincent? 

Vincent: Well, I’m glad Danny said it and not me, but yeah, I would agree with that. Unless you’re thinking with a venue of 1,000 people just putting 100 in it. Which probably doesn’t work, right? But you want live events, right? You don’t just want someone on stage, and it being televised? You want people in the audience. And I think that has to come later when we get a handle on exactly how many people have been infected, but we don’t really know at this point. 

Jim: How about smaller venues, where the capacity is lower? 

Danny: I’m not an expert on this at all, but we talked directly to the LA County Department of Health right as this was beginning and what the contact there said was ‘stop thinking about this as specific numbers.’ 

So I would love for the doctor to speak on that, that just focusing on numbers and house counts is not the right way to be looking at it. 

Vincent: Well certainly at this point, putting 50 people in a room is not a good idea, because chances are, at least if you’re in an urban area, that some of them are infected, and they don’t even know it, and then they’re going to give it to someone else. And we know that in closed rooms it’s really good for transmission, because that’s where most of it happens in families and houses. So that’s the problem if we don’t know who’s infected. 

But if we could somehow get to a point where more people are tested, and we say ‘these 50 people we know are immune or not infected,’ maybe we could think about letting them into a room at some point. Not today, but maybe in mid-summer or fall. 

Jim: It sounds like what you’re saying is that it isn’t really about cleaning the railings or the seats or something like that, so much as it is testing and tracing and having an awareness of who has this and who doesn’t? 

Vincent: Yes, and I don’t know if we can do that in this country, because people are interested in privacy. But if you want to talk about getting back, you’re going to have to give away some of that privacy on your phones and so forth. And if we could let 50 people in who are either immune or not infected, I would be OK with that. And tell them, ‘don’t be touching your face so much,’ that could work. But it would be an experiment, right? 

Jim: The other thing that came up is the idea of top-quality productions that are done in the venue that are then recorded and shared. Is it conceivable that if you’re filming in an empty venue, you could keep a staff and cast safe? 

Danny: It’s a huge concern for us; I know Actors Equity is investing in some national guidelines for this. We’re all committed to safety, but some of our venues are more challenging than others. In the Pasadena Playhouse, we’re in a venue that’s 100 years old, and the dressing rooms and the backstage situation is not really conducive to social distancing. We’re theater people, so there are creative ways to think about this — a solo show or staging in a certain way where there is social distancing, I think there’s always a solution, but right now it’s way too soon. But my colleagues are also talking about these ideas, how to put things on stage in a safe way, to continue operations in some modified way to reach out to people who are also missing this right now. 

Vincent: I would also add, if you want to bring talent together, that’s when testing comes in. Let’s test all of them, if they’re all negative, they’re not much threat to one another. But then you follow up with them for a few weeks after they’re brought together and make sure they stay well. And then there’s something else we can add to this equation: At some point there’s going to be a drug that we can use to treat people. So if someone gets sick we can take care of them. I think that will happen at some point, before the end of the year probably. 

Jim: You think that’s conceivable this year? 

Vincent: I’m talking about a treatment, not a vaccine, that’ll happen next year. There are things that are being tested right now and some of them are looking OK. You don’t know the amount of effort that’s going into this, it’s astounding the number of companies that are invested in this. And these are very talented people who know what they’re doing, and I’m quite sure something this year will come out of it. 

Danny: The highline of this conversation is when can venues reopen, and I think there’s all the science behind it and government regulations and all of that and the testing. But there’s also this psychological factor of when audiences will feel comfortable en mass to come back into our venues. And all the things we’re talking about, mass testing and a treatment are factors in getting an audience more comfortable coming, but if I was operating a venue in Georgia and they said you can start having people come, I agree, no one’s coming. And they shouldn’t come, particularly those who are vulnerable populations. 

Vincent: They won’t come until there’s been an event that hasn’t been a problem. And once they see that, and see people going to restaurants, then they will start coming. You need to have that first one. 

Danny: And I think we all fear coming back too early, and then there’s a public outbreak once again and everyone retreats once again. Our businesses are already taking a catastrophic hit, and the thought of ramping up again and the effort and resources and capital it takes to ramp back up our businesses to then shut down again, seems truly like a blow we will not be able to come back from, in my opinion. 

Check back tomorrow for Part 2.



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