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Entertainment venues deserve some clarity

Gov. Kate Brown and state health officials have generally done a good job so far of responding to changing COVID-19 case numbers, adjusting policies and restrictions to reflect fluctuating risk levels. Now they need to start looking forward, and give live entertainment venues the guidance they need now to plan ahead for a summer season. A webinar conducted March 31 with state health officials was not encouraging.

Entertainment operations such the Britt Festivals and the Sisters Folk Festival have to start soon to secure contracts with performers if they have any hope of a summer season this year. If restrictions on public events remain as strict as they are now, those festivals cannot operate at all. But vaccination rates are climbing rapidly, eligibility has been extended to every Oregonian 16 and older starting later this month, and case counts are dropping.

There is every reason to believe Oregon counties can reach the “lower risk” category by summer. But capacity restrictions for that risk level that were developed before widespread vaccinations began are too restrictive to allow Britt and the Sisters festival to break even. And indoor venues such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival need expanded capacity limits as well.

Britt officials say they need to sell a minimum of 1,500 tickets, but existing low-level restrictions would allow them to seat only 605 out of a total capacity of 2,200.

OSF officials say it’s not fair to allow churches to hold services with 75% capacity at the lower risk level but limit entertainment venues to 50%.

No one is suggesting that the state should throw entertainment venues wide open now. And when the time comes to resume outdoor concerts and indoor theater productions, venue operators must take responsibility for enforcing any restrictions that continue to be imposed. That means social distancing rules and mask-wearing, to protect those who may not be able to be vaccinated for medical reasons.

The entertainment industry is asking that venues be allowed to operated at 100% capacity 30 days after a county hits the lower risk category and after the vaccine has been made available to all adults. That’s not unreasonable, but the state has not responded to the request, and it was not addressed in the March 31 webinar.

That’s unacceptable. At the very least, state officials should be actively discussing this issue with the affected businesses, and they should be doing it now.

Instead, the governor’s office is focused on the immediate threat from variants of the virus that have health officials concerned. Charles Boyle, a Brown spokesman, says the governor is “committed to revisiting Oregon’s health and safety guidance as case rates decline,” but added that “we still need to remain cautious.”

Caution in April is fine, but it should not preclude planning for June and July so that a key segment of Oregon’s economy can prepare for some kind of season and avoid going out of business for good.

Crista Munro, director of the Sisters Folk Festival, told the Mail Tribune that the industry needs state officials to participate in that planning, not just put out COVID statistics.

“We’re pretty sure they can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Munro said.

So far, they haven’t demonstrated that ability.