The Journal Gazette
Sunday, January 23, 2022 1:00 am

Effects of COVID not letting up

Recent surge leads theaters, arenas to tighten policies

TERRI RICHARDSON | The Journal Gazette

With Allen County's deaths from COVID-19 now over 1,000 and surging positive cases, many organizations are tightening policies regarding the virus – in some cases requiring proof of vaccinations or negative COVID tests before individuals can be admitted into a building.

The Fort Wayne Philharmonic is the latest to alter its COVID policy, announcing last week that masks will be required at all Philharmonic concert halls, including Embassy Theatre, regardless of a person's vaccine status or a concert hall's policy. The policy will apply for when Allen County is in the red based on the number of its positivity rate.

In addition, audience members will be moved out of the first three rows of seating and musicians will be distanced onstage.

The spike in new cases also caused Allen Superior Court and Circuit Court to halt jury trials beginning Monday until at least Feb. 14. And for the third year, Vera Bradley announced the cancellation of its highly attended outlet sale, which was scheduled for early May at Memorial Coliseum.

Since the pandemic began, groups, organizations and government agencies have struggled to maintain an updated COVID policy that keeps the public's safety in mind while still allowing people access to activities and buildings.

Entertainment and arts groups, which rely on ticket sales and attendance to keep the lights on, have been among the most affected by the surge and have been proactive in changing protocols.

On Jan. 7, Cinema Center, an independent art house downtown, began requiring proof of a COVID-19 vaccination for people to enter the theater. The only exemption is if someone can show credible proof of a negative COVID test within the last 48 hours.

The policy change comes after the theater recently opened to the public Nov. 12, having been closed since the pandemic started nearly two years ago. Even with the long-awaited opening, the theater chose to keep social distancing, which limited guests to about 30 people per screening in the main theater.

“For us, it was about what we heard from patrons, as well as our staff, and everybody seemed to want a place where they could go and they could feel comfortable,” said Art Herbig, executive director of Cinema Center.

Most of the theater's patrons are older and Herbig said the staff would hear from those renewing their memberships that they weren't comfortable coming to the theater because of COVID. The new policy was implemented after consultation with the board.

“One of the things we have to talk about within the center is that Cinema Center isn't a movie theater,” Herbig said. “We are a nonprofit art house who survives because we build a community. We have members, we have a board, our structure is different. We are built on a community of people.”

So far, Herbig said the reaction to the safety measures has been positive. The theater received a small spike in membership and people seemed happy, except for one email complaint about the change. But Herbig and the theater plan to continue with the new policy.

“I would love to swing open the doors and have a full house every weekend, but for now, like I said, this is about making people feel comfortable and making it possible to do events.”

In December, the Allen County Public Library canceled its in-person programming and altered hours at its branches under its code red guidelines, which has the library make such changes when the county is designated red by the state. That category represents the highest level of coronavirus spread – at least 15% positivity among individuals tested in a seven-day period.

The changes were made “to manage COVID-related staffing shortages, while still maintaining consistent open hours for our patrons,” said Kara Stevenson, the library's marketing manager, by email.

While masks are not required, Stevenson says they are recommended for visitors age 2 and older, and staff are required to wear a mask while working in public areas and where social distancing is not possible.

“Our main objective operating under the code red guidelines is to protect the health and well-being of our library staff and patrons,” Stevenson said. “It is our priority to do whatever we can for the best interest of those who use or work in our facilities each day. We will continue to follow the recommendations of health officials, monitor our staffing levels, and adjust our protocols appropriately.”

Events at Memorial Coliseum have been left up to the sponsor or promoter, Chelsea Scofield, marketing communications coordinator for the Coliseum, said by email. Exceptions are with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants basketball games and Purdue University Fort Wayne, which plays its games at the venue.

The Mad Ants require attendees seated within 15 feet of the sidelines and players benches to wear a face mask and provide proof of vaccination upon entry. For Mastodons basketball games, all attendees are required to wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.

The Coliseum itself doesn't require masks, but does recommend them. And although none of the Coliseum events currently have pandemic-related rules, Scofield said “this is of course subject to change.”

Many organization officials said they are continuing discussions and paying attention to recommendations from health experts as reports about the virus' spread are released.

Herbig said Arts United, the umbrella organization for member arts groups, has been hosting conversations with those groups about how each are handling the pandemic. While participants are interested in what others are doing and supportive of each other, Herbig said each group operates differently.

A museum, for example, is not the same as a theater; each group will update policy based on what works for its audience.

“I'm not a doctor, I'm not an immunologist. ... I'm not an M.D. ... I'm not sure what the future holds for how this will function or how this will work,” Herbig said. “What I'm looking for is well-informed experts that are going to tell me what's best for communities going forward.”

For him, it's currently being vaccinated and wearing masks.

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