If you’re looking forward to attending in-person arts events this spring, don’t toss your stash of masks just yet. As Washington and King County drop COVID-19 masking and vaccination requirements this month, the response from the Seattle arts community is mixed. While some arts groups and venues are following the eased guidelines, many performing arts organizations are sticking to requiring masks and vax proof at least through the end of May.
On March 1, King County ended its requirement that restaurants, bars, gyms and cultural and recreational spaces verify patrons’ vaccination or negative coronavirus test status. And Gov. Jay Inslee announced late last month that the statewide mask mandate would lift March 12, ahead of his initial timeline; King and Snohomish counties are following suit. Businesses, though, are free to impose their own vaccination and masking requirements if they choose.
Here’s what a number of arts, music and culture organizations in the Seattle area are doing.
Many local arts and culture organizations, including Seattle Theatre Group, 5th Avenue Theatre, Seattle Symphony, Seattle Opera, Pacific Northwest Ballet, A Contemporary Theatre, Town Hall and more, have decided to require masks and proof of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test until at least May 31.
“Our hope is to be able to provide the general public here in King County, and certainly in Seattle, a baseline of what they can expect at many of the venues and arts organizations,” said Josh LaBelle, executive director of Seattle Theatre Group, which runs the Paramount, Moore and Neptune theaters.
Following a meeting between Seattle-area theater leaders in late February, most, if not all, local theaters are following this same timeline, according to Bernadine Griffin, the 5th Ave’s managing director.
Organization leaders say they will continue to regularly reassess their policies, but they remain committed to the safety of patrons, many of whom have requested that these policies stay intact.
While the loosening county and state guidelines is a good sign, said Krishna Thiagarajan, Seattle Symphony’s president and CEO, arts organizations have specific factors to consider. The government recommendations, he said, “are made for a very sort of broad common denominator,” not a place like the Symphony, where a number of performers are blowing air through their instruments.
And the safety of staff is a factor too. Unmasked performers are typically exposed to thousands of people each week, sometimes in intimate settings like those at Taproot Theatre, said Karen Lund, producing artistic director.
Many organizations are seeing increased attendance, but numbers aren’t what they used to be, and leaders also aren’t convinced the loss of the mask and vax mandates will have a large impact on turnout.
People who have been very cautious the last two years “will stay home until they personally decide it is safe to come back,” Ellen Walker, executive director of Pacific Northwest Ballet, said. And people who are feeling OK with returning because of the area’s relatively high vaccination rates — “those folks are already back.”
The 5th Ave’s Griffin acknowledged the potential for disgruntled patrons and said the county lifting restrictions will make it harder on front-of-house staff, though the hope is that consistency across the field will prevent complaints of policies being one way at one theater and another somewhere else.
“We really believe that masking and proof of vaccine is giving people confidence to come back,” said Kristina Murti, Seattle Opera’s director of marketing and communications.
STG’s LaBelle agreed, saying after a difficult two years, “holding on for a bit longer to try to ensure a soft landing feels pretty reasonable.”
Concert venues and nightclubs
Though the Paramount, Moore and Neptune theaters — three of the city’s most prominent venues for music — are requiring masks and vaccination proof through May, things vary at other venues.
Last Tuesday, a concert from Latin pop star Bad Bunny at Climate Pledge Arena became Seattle’s first major event since vaccination/negative test requirements for large gatherings were lifted. Earlier that day, Climate Pledge Arena’s website indicated it would no longer require such proof at concerts and sporting events, though masks would still be required until further guidance from local authorities. Mask compliance has been inconsistent at concerts throughout the pandemic, and now in the mandate’s lame duck period, they were seldom worn during the show.
Among smaller Seattle clubs, “there’s no consensus” on how to proceed, said Steven Severin, an organizer with the Washington Nightlife Music Association, a coalition of independently owned venues formed at the onset of the pandemic. He expects some venues to extend their vaccination and/or mask policies, while others follow state and county guidelines.
“It’s super encouraging, though, to know that it looks like everything is headed in the right direction,” Severin said. “Hopefully it continues this way and we can get back to having fun without worrying about if we are going to pay some kind of a price or not.”
Seattle Art Museum, following local government guidelines, no longer requires proof of vaccination or negative test to enter the museum, and on March 12, will no longer require masks.
Similarly, Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington, following King County and UW guidelines, is no longer requiring proof of vaccination. Masks will still be required at least through March 18, following UW guidelines, and the museum is currently considering next steps.
JeeSook Kutz, Henry’s director of finance and administration, noted it’s too early to tell how visitors will react to the most recent changes, but said the gallery has received an overwhelmingly positive response to safety protocols so far. The hope is that, between offering often large, lofty gallery spaces and the easing of restrictions, more people will be encouraged to return to in-person museum experiences.
Meanwhile, the Frye Art Museum will maintain its mask requirement, even after the King County requirement is lifted. Proof of vaccination or a recent negative test is no longer required, though visitors are encouraged to be vaccinated, according to Ingrid Langston, Frye spokesperson. These decisions came after organization leadership sought feedback from front-line staff, including the security union.
Chain multiplexes will follow state/county guidelines, as they have throughout the pandemic, meaning masks will be optional starting March 12. The local chain Far Away Entertainment, which owns the Admiral, Varsity and other theaters, plans to follow suit.
But many indie theaters will stick with masking for the near future, including SIFF’s three cinemas: the Uptown, Egyptian and Film Center. The Grand Illusion in the University District, Ark Lodge Cinemas in Columbia City and Northwest Film Forum on Capitol Hill will also continue to require masking; the latter two will also continue to check vaccination status. All will be reassessing as they monitor pandemic conditions over the spring.
Ark Lodge co-owner Justin Pritchett said his business is planning to keep the mask requirement for a while because, while outdoor masking seems to have waned, “it seems indoors there is still hesitancy.”
Local bookstores, which are both retail outlets (meaning they weren’t required to ask for vaccination proof) and arts venues offering readings and other events, have no consensus as the mandates lift — some will continue to require masks, some will require them if the store reaches a certain capacity, and some will follow the state/county guidelines. In short: If you’re planning to visit a bookstore, bring a mask just in case.
Elliott Bay Book Co. expects to no longer require masks after March 12, general manager Tracy Taylor said in an email, and the staff hopes to slowly begin resuming in-store readings and events in April.
But Dan Ullom, owner of Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, no doubt spoke for many when he said his store was still deciding what to do, and either decision — masks or no masks — was going to be problematic for some customers.
“We are leaning on keeping masks in place, though if we do, we need to decide on the criteria for when we are going to go without masks again,” he wrote in an email. When the mandate lifts on March 12, “we are going to be having a lot of conversations, no matter what decision we make.”
This coverage is partially underwritten by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over this and all its coverage.