Column: Pritzker’s reopening phases could doom live entertainment. Here are 7 ways to improve them.

Column: Pritzker’s reopening phases could doom live entertainment. Here are 7 ways to improve them.



Chicago’s arts and entertainment community reacted with various manifestations of horror to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Tuesday announcement that live performances, at least those with audiences of more than 50 people, would be banned until the final stage of Pritzker’s plan for reopening Illinois in the face of COVID-19.

But that did not mean they thought that the widely admired governor was wrong. It was just deeply painful to hear.

In the language of the plan broken down in the Tribune Wednesday, such events would be reserved for the fifth and final stage, only triggered by “a vaccine, effective and widely available treatment, or the elimination of new cases over a sustained period of time through herd immunity or other factors.”

Estimates vary widely about the timeframe for an approved vaccine, from early in the fall to never. To even the most optimistic timeline, weeks or months then must be added for any delivery ramp-up. While therapeutic drugs like remdesivir and others have shown some benefit in trials, opinions already vary widely on their “effectiveness,” a word that implies subjective judgement. The phrase “a sustained period of time” also is open to interpretation. And while some countries have embraced so-called herd immunity, the current Illinois strategy aims to limit infections to save lives and prevent hospital overcrowding. By design, this prolongs achieving herd immunity.

When one of these factors might be triggered is the great unknown. But if weeks stretch into many months, or years, Chicago’s storied arts institutions will be devoid of meaningful earned revenue and many will fail. “I just don’t know how many of us will survive that,” said Deb Clapp, the executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres.

Major musical festivals, independent music venues, presenting houses like the Auditorium and the Harris Theater, improv and sketch comedy clubs like Second City and even large restaurants are all being swamped by the same storm and potentially headed toward insolvency. On the other hand, major Broadway figures like Cameron Mackintosh and Broadway in Chicago’s president Lou Raizin increasingly are arguing that social distancing is close to impossible in large-scale shows, as the Pritzker directive implicitly acknowledges. Few can figure out a way to fully quarantine actors or musicians who must tour, to avoid lawsuits filed by audience members who might get sick, or to make the economics of performance work with a 25 percent capacity. Even fewer of them can envisage taking audience temperatures in protective gear in the lobby and ejecting the fevered (instantly refunding their entire party?) while preserving a fun and cheery night out for everyone else.

“Unimaginably awful,” said Raizin.

So what to do in the face of this collective pain? This sector is crucial to the economic future of Illinois. Here’s how I think Pritzker could improve these guidelines.


1. Build in far more flexibility.


Different entertainment institutions have different needs. A children’s theater in a huge room will be safer with 100 seats than a classical concert with 50 vulnerable seniors gathered close. Even beyond drive-in movie theaters, performances with scores of people outside should be viable before smaller shows indoors; the Grant Park Music Festival is not Lollapalooza nor Metro. Cabaret tables are better for distancing than fixed seating. Solo shows, or performances by couples quarantining together, are the easiest of all to imagine, since the performers would be safest. If strictures are made more flexible, these shows might be lifelines for the likes of Second City, the comedy clubs and Chicago’s musical theaters.

2. Get the experts in the room.

Arts leaders like Clapp, Raizin and Roche Schulfer at the Goodman Theatre (to name but a few) say they want to be part of Pritzker’s team. Good idea. They have expertise with large groups of people and with performing artists. Unions with a mandate to protect their members’ safety should be part of this process too. These are smart people with expertise. Let them be part of the decision-making.


3. Respond to data from elsewhere.


Other regions of America and the world will move faster to reopen live entertainment than New York and Chicago. For example, the many 1,000-seat music, comedy and variety theaters around Pigeon Forge, Tenn., are expected to open again by the end of the month. This will provide valuable data: Do audiences feel comfortable attending? Will social distancing work? Will these places become infection hotspots? It all will be helpful information. Someone should check them out. From a safe distance.


4. Build institutional responsibility.


The state will not be able to inspect every venue. And it does not behoove Illinois to have its huge, live-culture sector immobilized for months and sitting around waiting for a paternalistic green light from the state. There is much we cannot control with this pandemic: it will be crucial for our shared future to empower institutions to respond, right now, to changing circumstances and know that their plans will get a hearing and measured against updated, science-based facts.


5. Realize the Importance of an interim step.


Relegating all entertainment beyond the home to the final and potentially distant step might be a bridge too far. It is too important to people’s psyches (especially children’s) and it helps maintain the long-term self-discipline required to re-open the economy in a less dangerous way. If dine-in restaurants with more than 50 diners are re-opening (the rules are unclear), there should be some way to include artistic endeavors safely in the same stage.


6. Keep this decision as far from politics as possible.


The competing economic and health imperatives of the pandemic are breaking down along tired ideological lines, suggesting a nation with diminished empathic and critical-thinking skills. The virus does not know state lines or ideologies. In a sector as visible as culture, which could become a flashpoint for unrest this summer as festivals are canceled, it will be essential to bring everyone along and to treat the twin heads of this crisis as indivisible. People must not be afraid of civil debate.


7. Acknowledge personal agency.


This one might be the hardest and most crucial of all. Current evidence suggests there will not be an individual moment when all Illinoisans agree it is now safe to go a concert, a movie or a show. Some would go tonight if only they could. Others won’t venture out until months after they have been vaccinated. This will vary by age, ideology and tolerance for personal risk.

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