September 22, 2023

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Some Twin Cities venues drop COVID protocols, others don’t

Performing arts venues in the Twin Cities are walking a COVID-19 tightrope.

Taking their cues from municipal leaders and health departments, some nightspots and companies have lifted their mask mandates and proof of vaccine requirements. Minneapolis’ Target Center and the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul — two of Minnesota’s biggest concert venues — have both suspended the requirement that patrons show proof of vaccination or wear masks.

But other institutions, including professional theaters that have contracts with unions that have their own COVID guidance, have adopted a wait-and-see approach.

As restaurants, sports venues and municipalities relax their pandemic protocols against a backdrop of declining COVID cases, the decisions about keeping or tweaking safety practices often involve multiple and sometimes complex stakeholders operating in a fluid environment.

“The [COVID] numbers look great now and we hope they stay there but we all need these bands to stay on the road, be healthy and in a good mindset,” said Nate Kranz, general manager of First Avenue, which also runs associated nightspots such as the Palace Theatre, Fitzgerald Theater, Fine Line and Turf Club, and has tickets for 400 concerts on sale among its venues. “We’re trying to thread the needle carefully and in a way that’s responsible so that we don’t relax the rules then have to tighten them again.”

First Avenue requires proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. That is also true of Mixed Blood Theatre, which in addition requires patrons to wear masks. If someone has not been tested, the company provides a test onsite.

“We’re in a transition where people are believing that they might be comfortable and safe but they’re not sure,” said Mixed Blood founder and artistic director Jack Reuler. “For two years we’ve been trying to predict behavior around COVID and things change in ways we could’ve never imagined.”

The Twin Cities, where some protocols have been relaxed while others remain in force, is a microcosm of the nation. Performing arts companies are wrestling with what to do, mindful about lifting protocols in the past and then having to reinstate them.

Dance, opera companies and theaters in Milwaukee have lifted mask and vaccine requirements starting March 14. But such safety protocols remain in place elsewhere, including New York and Chicago.

Jim Sheeley, president of the Historic Theatre Group that runs the State, Orpheum and Pantages theaters, understands the tension between the hope of things getting back to normal and the experience of an uncertain pandemic. His theaters require masks and proof of vaccine or a negative COVD test.

“We have a lot of constituencies — Broadway shows, concert tours, comedy — and everybody kind of needs to come together on it so we’re not giving different messages,” Sheeley said. “Right now we’re going to stay where we are and as things evolve, our company will make those changes.”

Meanwhile, Chanhassen Dinner Theatres, the Old Log and Northrop Auditorium have all relaxed their protocols to a degree. Chanhassen, which is staging “Footloose,” still requires proof of vaccine or a negative COVID-19 test but masks are now optional for most of its audience. The dinner theater still requires patrons who are closest to the stage — and its unmasked performers — to keep masks on.

Old Log will relax its mask requirement April 14, said owner Greg Frankenfield. As far as vaccinations are concerned, he added: “We run one show a week where we require vaccinations and we will continue that through the end of May.”

Northrop, which operates under the aegis of the University of Minnesota, suspended its vaccination requirement in February. Masks will become optional starting March 21.

Overall, safety protocols have been embraced by theatergoers, said Chanhassen artistic director Michael Brindisi.

“We’ve had, at most, a handful of people grumble but most of the people who’ve gotten their mask and vaccine checks have been thankful,” Brindisi said. “They feel reassured, and that has been really good for our [box office] numbers.”

Most theaters retain rigorous COVID safety protocols. The Guthrie Theater, Ordway Center, and Theater Latte Da still require proof of vaccine and an identification that includes name, and a photo or date of birth, and the wearing of masks.

“We are working under multiple [union] contracts, all of which include masking and vaccination requirements for at least the next few shows,” said spokesperson Elizabeth Deacon of the Guthrie, where Joe Dowling’s revival of “The Tempest” is playing and where ushers walk the aisles at intermission with placards to remind patrons to stay masked up. “It’s all subject to change … but we alone can’t make those changes to protocols.”

The Ordway continues to require non-cloth masks inside its venue, following recommendations from its medical team and the Minnesota Department of Health, president Chris Harrington said. As of this week, the Ordway still required proof of vaccination and booster shot, or a negative test.

The Children’s Theatre, the nation’s largest, is taking it show by show, said managing director Kimberly Motes. Right now it is retaining the same strict protocols for “Something Happened in Our Town,” which opened Feb. 27. That could change in April, when “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” opens, if virus trends change.

“Our audience includes children under [age] 5 who do not have the ability to be vaccinated,” Motes said. “That’s an additional consideration for us as we daily track the positivity rates and percentages.”

Penumbra Theatre, which opened “Thurgood” Thursday, not only requires masks and proof of vaccination but has reduced the theater’s capacity by 50%, taping off seats to allow space between patrons. Penumbra even dismisses its patrons church-style, with ushers allowing people to exit row by row.

“We’re being extra cautious and want to keep our community safe,” said managing director Amy Thomas.

Among concert venues, the Dakota still requires proof of vaccination but not masks.

Some musical acts are requiring masks at their club dates in the Twin Cities, but those numbers are declining.

If cases continue to fall across the state and region, Minnesotans may be able to take in concerts like the 14,000 fans who thronged Target Center on Tuesday to “Levitate” with Dua Lipa.

Caution is the mantra for many of the smaller venues.

“We all work in an ecosystem and we all rely on one another,” said First Avenue’s Kranz. “Everything has moved really quick from being essentially in lockdown in the last couple of weeks to talking about opening up. We’re all excited to get back to normal but we have to do it carefully.”

Staff writers Jon Bream and Chris Riemenschneider contributed to this report.