President Joe Biden called upon the nation’s entertainment-industry executives Thursday to do their part to help beat back the raging COVID-19 pandemic by adopting admission requirements that could cut into their bottom line and spark partisan pushback.
“To those of you running large entertainment venues, from sports arenas to concert venues to movie theaters, please require folks to get vaccinated or show a negative test as a condition of entry,” Biden urged in a speech from the White House, part of a broad set of vaccine and testing protocols that could impact up to 100 million Americans.
Biden’s admonition comes at a time when those who run concert venues, movie theaters and playhouses have been struggling to stem revenue losses fueled by the rampant virus by finding a delicate balance between keeping customers and performers safe and adopting rules that might drive them away.
That has resulted in a hodgepodge of requirements that vary state-by-state and even city-by-city as the nation takes often radically different approaches to the viral surge.
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The extremely contagious delta variant of COVID has caused related hospital admissions and deaths to jump across the nation, although the brunt of the impact is being felt in states where the percentage of unvaccinated residents is high, among them Alabama, Mississippi, Wyoming, Idaho, Louisiana, Arkansas and Georgia.
In his speech, Biden took aim at the unvaccinated, saying, “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.”
It remains to be seen if Biden’s words will turn into action at those venues that have stood their ground in declining to require audiences to be vaccinated, with most simply suggesting that masks be worn during the show.
Industry experts say that while words of a president carry weight, they may not find a receptive audience among executives who feel they’re already doing their part at a time when their very livelihood is at stake.
“Even though it is our president saying this, it’s going to be hard for a lot of owners to take it to heart, because they feel they’re already following guidelines that are costing them money,” says Jeff Bock, senior media analyst at Exhibitor Relations.
Bock notes that the situation is particularly fraught for movie theater owners. Although there has yet to be a COVID super-spreader event linked to moviegoing, the indoor nature of that pastime makes many wary.
The National Association of Theatre Owners “is hurting so badly that having new requirements shackled on them feels like the end of the world, I’m sure,” says Bock. “Plus, this is all so political still.”
Although a NATO spokesperson declined comment to USA TODAY on Thursday, the organization’s president, John Fithian, told The Hollywood Reporter last month that his organization would not oppose a vaccination or testing mandate.
Theater owners have been reeling since the pandemic shuttered movie houses and spurred streaming habits that in turn caused some studios to release big movies on small screens. For many owners, the survival of theaters hinges on both consumers feeling safe to go indoors and blockbusters holding off on heading into homes for at least a month.
“We have a supply issue, not a demand issue,” says Chris Johnson, CEO of Chicago-based Classic Cinemas, with 131 screens in Illinois and Wisconsin.
But while Johnson says his theaters will continue to abide by any mandates set by city officials, he cautions that some rules may cause patrons to stay away. “If I have to ask my people to check a vaccine card against an ID for every person who walks in, that’s a lot of work when you’re trying to fill a theater in time for the show to start,” he says.
Delta’s surge in recent months has already prompted many performers to change plans and entertainment outlets to come up with protocols to ensure their shows go on.
In August, Neil Young pulled out of Farm Aid, because “my soul tells me it would be wrong” to perform and potentially jeopardize the health of fans. Garth Brooks cancelled five stadium dates, saying, “We are still in a fight and I must do my part.” Others who nixed planned dates included Stevie Nicks and Michael Bublé.
Recently, two major music promoters – Live Nation Entertainment and AEG Presents – unveiled protocols to combat the surging virus, and began requiring staff and employees to be vaccinated.
Within the next month, Live Nation’s fully owned and operated venues and festivals in the U.S. will require all artists and fans to either show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test where permitted by law.
“Vaccines are going to be your ticket back to shows,” Live Nation Entertainment President and CEO Michael Rapino said last month. “As of Oct. 4, we will be following the model we developed for Lollapalooza and requiring this for artists, fans and employees at Live Nation venues and festivals everywhere possible in the U.S.”
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Lollapalooza, a massive music event that drew 400,000 revelers to Chicago at the end of July, required either proof of vaccination or a negative test. The packed event did not lead to any notable virus outbreaks.
AEG also plans to institute a vaccine mandate for entry into any of its owned and operated clubs, theaters and festivals by Oct. 1 – as permitted by law. The date was chosen to allow unvaccinated ticket holders time to receive their shots or to wait for refund information. .
Earlier this summer, Broadway producers announced that theaters would re-open this fall, thanks to a comprehensive set of protocols that requires actors to be vaccinated and patrons to show proof of vaccination or negative tests, and wear masks. New York, along with San Francisco and New Orleans, requires that anyone attending a function indoors – whether that’s a performance or a dinner – carry proof of vaccination.
Among the large music festivals happening in September that are in compliance with Biden’s wishes are Life Is Beautiful in Las Vegas, Riot Fest in Chicago, Firefly in Dover, Delaware, Louder than Life in Louisville and Governors Ball in New York.
Across the nation, many local venues and performance groups also have already instituted rules that anticipated Biden’s plea.
In Cincinnati, dozens of performing arts groups, including the city’s ballet and opera companies, require visitors to be vaccinated or have negative tests. In Nashville, a music mecca, at least 12 venues also aren’t taken a chance with the virus.
And in Detroit, two of Detroit’s most prominent cultural institutions, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Broadway in Detroit, both require either proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test for admission to their performances.
Contributing: Jennifer McClellan and Charles Trepany, USA TODAY; David Lyman for The Cincinnati Enquirer; Cole Villena, The (Nashville) Tennessean; and Brian McCollum, Detroit Free Press