Downtown Venues Set COVID Protocols as Seasons Open

Tennessee Theatre Blade Sign Re-lighting, Gay Street, Knoxville, August 2016
Tennessee Theatre Blade Sign Re-lighting, Gay Street, Knoxville, August 2016

As fall has started, downtown venues are ramping up performances, ranging from classical, jazz and pop performances, to theatrical productions and more. With the new wave of entertainment comes important decisions regarding safety protocols in the midst of a pandemic. We need our arts, but the venues need us, their employees, and their artists to be safe. Keeping everyone healthy will help ensure the productions won’t go silent like they did in 2020.

Five downtown venues announced just over a month ago that they would require full vaccinations or a negative test within 72 hours of the event for every patron at their productions. Venues signing on included the Bijou, Tennessee, Mill and Mine, Outpost, and Old City Performing Arts. A vaccination card and ID, or negative test and ID are required of everyone age twelve and older, with younger children being required to present a negative test result.

Additionally, masks will be required of everyone. Masks are also required at the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, which are operated by the City of Knoxville. There is no current requirement for a vaccination or test. Masks are available at some venues, and exceptions are made for people actively eating or drinking.

I spoke briefly to Joshua Peterson who heads River and Rail Theatre Theatre Company and the Old City Performing Arts Center. He said safety is critical to the group and for the patrons of their new center. A number of shows are lined up, including concerts by Over the Rhine and John Paul White.

Critically, River and Rail opens their first full season this week with Pass Over, a critically acclaimed work by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu. The company was fortunate to have the production green-lighted, as after their contracts were set, the show was announced for Broadway. It is extremely rare for a production to be allowed to go forward at the same time as a production on Broadway, but this one was allowed. With such a major work in place to open their first full season, safety is essential to ensure continued performances.

I also spoke with Becky Hancock, Executive Director of the Tennessee Theatre. She provided the statement below regarding the current situation from the perspective of the Tennessee:

The Tennessee Theatre announced on August 23 specific protocols related to COVID. For all ticketed or public events in the Theatre, attendees must present either a negative COVID test result within 72 hours of show time, or present proof of vaccination, before entry. Masks are also required at all times except when actively eating or drinking. For details on these protocols, including how they apply to minors, and other safety measures enacted by the Theatre to help protect attendees, artists, and staff, can be found here.
These decisions were not arrived at lightly, and they take into account a number of factors that can change frequently and rapidly. The local active COVID case count, hospitalizations, and other health-related data are a major driver. The requirements of performers also contributed to our decisions. We consult with others in the industry, both locally and in similar situations elsewhere. We believe it is not an “either/or” scenario, but rather a “both/and”: What can we do to keep audiences (that are ready to return) as safe as possible, and allow us to finally begin earning revenue after nearly 18 months of inactivity.
As time goes on, these current protocols will certainly change. It may not be a linear or even path. Protocols may vary depending on performer requirements, rather than being largely venue-driven. But finding a way forward for our operations while offering a reasonably safe environment will continue to be our focus. We know we will never make everyone happy or comfortable with our decisions. We ask for patience and understanding as we navigate this challenging period. Whatever the reason, if you choose not to attend, the Tennessee Theatre will be here when you are ready to return.

The bottom line is that venues want to offer productions, musicians, actors and other artists want to perform, and fans are hungry for the return of live entertainment on a large scale. The virus isn’t static, nor is our understanding of it. Our capacity to prevent it or treat it is also shifting. All of these variables may result in shifting policies. Please support live productions when you feel safe to do so and show some grace for those who are trying to return performing arts to the stage.