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As the pandemic zigs, the live entertainment business zags

As the pandemic zigs, the live entertainment business zags

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On Aug. 14, tens of thousands of mostly unmasked music fans packed Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park to see Billy Joel perform and to celebrate what seemed like a sign of a return to normalcy.

Less than two weeks later, that event is looking more like a musical outlier.

Faced with rising positivity and hospitalization rates here and across the nation, and buoyed by news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had given full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, artists and venues have decided that using an honor system for patrons is too risky and are instead taking responsibility for slowing spread of Covid-19.

• Artpark announced that Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers will require proof of full vaccination for entry into her Sept. 15 performance. “Proof of a negative Covid test will not suffice,” according to the venue’s press release. No one under the age of 12 will be admitted.

• The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra announced that it will require all patrons to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid-19 test to attend any performance at Kleinhans Music Hall, beginning Sept. 11.

"The safety of our musicians, staff, volunteers and community is our #1 priority, and we will continue to follow all local, state and federal COVID-19 guidelines," BPO said in a statement released Tuesday. "No matter the scenario, we are dedicated to our mission of providing beautiful symphonic music for the Western New York community and beyond."

• When Every Time I Die plays Aug. 26 at the Rec Room on West Chippewa Street, proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken on the day of the show will be required for entry, for both vaccinated and unvaccinated patrons.

Musician Jason Isbell is being given credit for helping to draw attention to the dilemma theaters and venues face. Earlier this month, he began requiring that patrons had to show proof of vaccination to get into his shows. If venues would not comply, he said he would cancel shows.

Dave Wedekindt, vice president of concerts & marketing for Artpark, said that kind of approach seemed to have an effect.

“I think the artists are starting to collectively realize that they need to step up and use their voice, if it’s going to help more people get vaccinated,” he said. “Because as much as people want to debate about it, it is our ticket back to having these live events.”

A recent Artpark show featuring Joe Russo’s Almost Dead embraced a similar policy, and Wedekindt said there was “a serious lack of pushback.” That was a shift from the spring, when Artpark customers took to social media to complain about the venue's proposed vaccinated-only policy – a policy that changed when Covid-19 protocols were lifted by New York State and is now changing again.

The shift is not confined to concert venues; other performance spaces have decided that it is too risky to leave it up to their audiences to decide how best to keep everyone safe.

• Shea's Buffalo Theatre announced that all patrons, volunteers and staff must wear a mask regardless of vaccination status for all performances of "Frozen," opening Sept. 10.

• MusicalFare Theatre also is requiring proof of vaccination for its season opening production of "Camelot," starting Sept. 15.

• Road Less Traveled Productions previously announced it will require proof of vaccination when its season opens on Nov. 4.

Forms of proof include a CDC-issued vaccine card or New York State Excelsior Pass, along with photo ID.

Artpark's Wedekindt said the fact that his venue's first attempt at requiring vaccination proof went well could be a sign of things to come.

"People showed up with their vaccination proof, and there were really no problems at all," he said. "There’s been a shift in the general consciousness regarding this issue. And that’s a good thing for the future of these concerts we all love.”

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Chief of the Breaking News/Criminal Justice Desk

I've worked at The Buffalo News since 2005. I previously worked as a reporter at the New York Daily News and the Charlotte Observer and was a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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