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Sarasota arts organizations roll out new COVID-19 rules

Testing requirements, voluntary vaccine proof among new plans for largest indoor performances.

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After 18 months in darkness, the lights will again shine on Sarasota’s indoor arts stages soon but under new pandemic protocols including the requirement of a negative COVID-19 test for admittance or the voluntary production of vaccination proof, say leaders of Sarasota County’s nine major arts organizations. 

Beginning Sept. 26, a negative COVID-19 test will be required for anyone attending a performance of Asolo Repertory Theatre, Circus Arts Conservatory, Florida Studio Theatre, The Hermitage Artist Retreat, Sarasota Ballet, Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Orchestra, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. Leaders of the nine groups said if patrons prefer, proof of vaccination would be acceptable as an alternative to a negative test result.

In a joint written statement to the Observer, arts leaders said: “Performing arts organizations have faced unprecedented challenges in this pandemic. Our sector has been unable to operate normally since March 2020. Since the arts community is a major economic driver for the Suncoast, our organizations are working collaboratively to ensure that our patrons can continue to safely experience the joy of live performances, and we can keep our artists and our staff employed. Our economic and creative vitality depends on providing the safest possible environment for everyone.''

Many arts organizations shifted to virtual performances in the face of the pandemic, or scaled down their typical productions for outdoor audiences. 

The move back indoors with COVID-19 protocols marks a shift in thinking amid a resurgence of the COVID-19 virus over the summer. In the most recent report, Sarasota's COVID-19 positivity rate is 14%, though the seven-day average of new cases peaked in late August and has declined since. About 75% of Sarasota's over-12 population is vaccinated. In Manatee County, that figure is 66%.

Gov. Ron DeSantis last week stood by a bill he signed earlier this summer, which takes effect Sept. 16, that allows organizations and businesses to be fined $5,000 for requiring proof of vaccination. 

Sarasota Opera General Director Richard Russell said the arts organizations purposely are avoiding the bill's specifics by offering patrons an option of bypassing testing.

"The stated fine is part of a law passed by the legislature which bans proof of vaccination as a requirement,'' he said. "Our policy is to require a negative test but to accept a vaccination document if a patron voluntarily wants to provide it as an alternative. We are assured that this does not violate the law and therefore would not be subject to fines. We have no intention of violating the law.” 

The arts and cultural organizations of Sarasota County comprise one of the three largest employment sectors of the community. The arts organizations said their performers remain uncomfortable without strong health and safety protocols in place. The failure to secure robust audiences or top artists puts these arts organizations in danger of once again closing their doors, the group said.

Arts leaders have been sharing experiences and research from their March 2021 initiative #SafeArtsSarasota, which helped enable local arts organizations to safely reopen to audiences after being shuttered through the pandemic. The nine organizations will also work closely with the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County and will invite other local arts organizations to join this initiative.

Protocols will be revisited and may be revised based on CDC guidance and the evolving circumstances of the pandemic, including use of additional screening protocols. Patrons should check the individual websites of the arts organizations for details of protocols and refund policies.  


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