California reopening date surprises theater and music groups

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California officials shocked the performing arts community Tuesday when they announced plans to fully reopen the economy June 15 if certain vaccination and hospitalization benchmarks are met, leaving leaders of theaters, music groups and more scrambling to revisit plans for spring and summer and answer a long list of questions.

What needs to happen for audience members to sit side by side so soon? What programming is (or isn’t) lined up? Do staff need to be rehired? How much rehearsal might be necessary, and when can that start safely? Is the building ready to reopen for semi-normal operations?

“It’s the inverse of last March,” said Christopher Koelsch, president and chief executive of Los Angeles Opera, recalling how a year ago seemingly every news story was about another arts organization canceling its season. “It’s been an extraordinarily harrowing year. Now you have to rebuild what’s possible after so little was possible for the last 13 months.”

The million-dollar question: What, exactly, is possible?

The announcement indicated that the capacity limits stipulated in the color-tiered California blueprint for reopening would be lifted, allowing “usual operations” to resume in compliance with standards set by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA. The announcement did not offer specifics but cited “limited health restrictions, such as masking, testing, and testing or vaccination verification requirements for large-scale higher-risk events.”

Many arts groups had begun making plans to attempt small, socially distanced outdoor performances. In Los Angeles County, which sits in the orange tier, outdoor venues are being allowed to reopen at 33% capacity.

The unexpectedly quick timeline for return to business as usual resulted in jubilation — and some whiplash.

“Today’s announcement by the governor is incredibly hopeful news for the Music Center and the arts in Los Angeles,” said Rachel Moore, president and chief executive of the center, home to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Center Theatre Group, the L.A. Master Chorale and L.A. Opera. “We continue to put the safety and comfort of our guests, staff and artists at the forefront of everything we do, and we will wait for further information from the County of Los Angeles to determine how this news will impact our operations.”

In the meantime, Moore said, the Music Center is days away from announcing a series of outdoor ticketed experiences that will bring live audiences back for the first time since March 2019. Looking ahead, the Music Center will likely open its theaters on a more regular schedule this fall.

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