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San Diego Venues Respond To Rise In COVID Cases By Implementing New Policies

Soda Bar, a live music venue and bar in City Heights, is shown in an undated photo.
Cory Stier
Soda Bar, a live music venue and bar in City Heights, is shown in an undated photo.
Arts, music and performance venues have been thinking about and deciding on their COVID protocols with the rise of the Delta variant. Many are now requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

Arts, music and performance venues have been re-evaluating their COVID protocols with the rise of the Delta variant. Many are now requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.

Some of the first venues to announce the requirement in San Diego were Cygnet Theatre and Soda Bar, followed by Belly Up — but not venue-wide for Belly Up. That was just for a particular show, Neko Case.

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At Soda Bar, in addition to now requiring face masks when audience members are not drinking, they're now checking for vaccination or a negative test from within 72 hours prior. This is also the case with Cygnet Theatre.

Moxie Theatre has a similar policy — proof of vaccination plus a mask, or proof of recent negative test and a mask — but they're also requiring audience members to be over the age of 12.

Venues see these new requirements as a way to help make sure they don't see capacity restrictions or full closures again if the recent increase in cases gets worse. But for the most part, it's to keep audience members, performers and staff safe.

"...Knowing that crowded music venues have the potential for increased virus transmission, we just felt like this was a necessary precaution. We were doing our best to just navigate this rapidly changing situation and it sort of just felt like the right thing to do," Soda Bar co-owner Angie Ollman said.

There have been a range of reactions to venues announcing these new policies.

Cygnet spoke to KPBS shortly after announcing their policy. Jill Jones, Cygnet Theatre's patron services manager, said they had only seen positive feedback.

"From people who have been coming to the theater for years, they are really excited about it because we're trying to keep the community as safe as possible... We've had a few people call in to buy tickets specifically because we announced this policy," she said.

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Soda Bar said it was all over the place — they were called plenty of names online, but ultimately it was basically 95% positive — though they said that small negative factions are very loud online. Their talent buyer Cory Stier said that a few support bands had to cancel, because someone in their band wasn't vaccinated.

When it comes to enforcement, some venues have a head start.

Night club music venues, like Soda Bar, have existing staff that can take on the enforcement of the new COVID rules.

"We'll have our security staff at the front door checking for vaccination, just looking for photos of people's vaccination cards, or hopefully people will be using the state QR code system, which I think is the easiest way to go about it. And, you know, we're sort of learning as we go. This is just new territory for us. And there aren't that many other places doing this yet for us to be learning from others that have gone before us," Soda Bar's Ollman said.

Rolling this sort of COVID-era rule enforcement into customer service roles can be challenging for staff and employees in all sectors. For smaller theater companies and music halls, many of the events are staffed by volunteers or a small staff.

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Ticket checkers in theaters and classical performance halls are often volunteer ushers or docents, for example.

The La Jolla Music Society is currently hosting their SummerFest series of indoor concerts. In terms of policy, they're keeping mask wearing voluntary, and asking all attendees, not just unvaccinated, to wear masks at all times when indoors.

"Most organizations like La Jolla Music Society are not equipped with a level of security that can enforce a mandate in a concert hall," said Todd Schultz, president of the La Jolla Music Society.

LJMS is taking a personal, individual approach — everyone is offered a disposable mask and an usher will seek them out individually if they're still not wearing one. Before the majority of their performances, Schultz will get up on stage and request that everyone put their masks on. Most people do, he said. He'll even reach out to people after the fact if there's an email address on file.

"We are a participant in society. And we have a responsibility to play our role in doing our best to help others. And part of that is stepping up an. Putting in some restrictions that will help keep people safe. And to avoid fights in the aisles," he said.

Schultz said the possibility of hiring security would be an "extremely remote possibility."

Carol Wallace, CEO of San Diego Theatres, said the Civic Theatre and Balboa Theatre are maintaining that masks or vaccines are not required in general, but because the vast majority of their shows are from outside presenters — so Live Nation, for example — they function more like a rental space. The artists and presenters have the capacity to announce their own requirements.

For example, San Diego Theatres has a show from a stand-up comedian Nemr, who is raised in San Diego, and they've revised their COVID policy for that show. Guests will need to show proof of vaccine to attend. In such cases, the organization will send an email to ticket holders and offer refunds if a guest can't comply.

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The Belly Up is another such venue. They confirmed to KPBS via email that they're following CDC, state and county guidelines, so requiring masks for people who are not fully vaccinated. Otherwise, masks are optional.

Similarly to San Diego Theatres, Belly Up is following artist-specific requests. People with tickets to the Neko Case show later this month all got an email saying proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within 48 hours would be required at the door, and then a request to wear a mask indoors.

In this reporting, KPBS heard repeatedly from venues that this is a fluid situation, and everyone is learning. Arts and entertainment venues are having to learn new skills, like crisis communication, public health and even security. So definitely be flexible and patient, and check with the venues regularly — often they'll email updates to ticket holders, but social media is sometimes the first place to check.