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OSF and Britt Fest join appeal to state for changes in live events guidelines

The Britt Festival hill, quiet in 2020, is poised to reopen in 2o21 if state guidelines permit. Events sector representatives have asked the state for more definitive and more equitable guidelines that would enable better planning and healthier reopenings. Photo courtesy Britt Festival.
Oregon event sector clashes with state over clarity of reopening guidelines

On March 31, representatives from Oregon’s live event sector attended a webinar with state officials in hopes of providing input to help craft recommendations for safe and equitable reopening of performance venues.

The problem, say event coordinators, is twofold — a lack of clarity in reopening guidelines and unreasonable limits on capacity for gatherings.

Instead of being asked to provide input, event representatives were limited to submitting questions at the end of the meeting, “questions that were largely left unanswered,” said Crista Munro, executive director of the Sisters Folk Festival.

“We need the state to do some post-pandemic planning, not just publish COVID projections and statistics,” Munro said. “We’re pretty sure they can walk and chew gum at the same time.”

Compliance from business owners and Oregonians with COVID-19 restrictions has helped keep cases down and hospitals from being overwhelmed, said Charles Boyle, deputy communications director for Gov. Kate Brown.

“Gov. Brown has been committed to revisiting Oregon’s health and safety guidance as case rates decline,” Boyle said in an email. “But while case counts have steadily decreased over the past few weeks, the last week has shown that case numbers can rise again across the state, and we still need to remain cautious, especially as we’re also assessing the spread of new, more contagious variants.

“The current risk level framework was designed to be sustainable over the long term while we work to stop the spread of COVID-19, and it will remain in place for the time being. We will continue to assess the situation and plan for what is next should case numbers decrease and vaccine availability increases.”

The Sisters festival has a capacity of 4,200 at 11 venues. It’s planning to downsize a bit to seven venues in 2021, but needs to be able to operate at 75% capacity at a minimum.

The online presentation was conducted by Brown’s liaison, Leah Horner, and Dean Sidelinger, an epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Authority.

Meeting participants were told that the governor would not be pursuing any input from the industry, according to a news release by the participating organizations.

Equity is a concern of the group, said David Schmitz, executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

“It’s not right for faith-based organizations to be allowed to operate at 75% capacity at the lowest risk level and entertainment venues at 50%,” he said.

For OSF, it’s less about now and more about the future.

“Current guidelines don’t give us a path forward,” Schmitz said. “We’re not asking for all venues to be open now. That would be unsafe. But we need clear guidelines in order to plan ahead.”

Event coordinators want a clearer definition of what a low risk level is and what happens beyond that.

“We need more definitive guidance within 45 days or there won’t be a 2021 Oregon Shakespeare Festival,” Schmitz said.

Donna Briggs, president and CEO of the Britt Festival, echoed Schmitz’s concerns about guidelines. She characterized existing rules as unworkable.

“At current capacity guidelines for operating at the low risk level, the Britt would be able to sell only 50% of its capacity. That’s not adequate for us,” she said.

“Even with current social distancing rules, we would be able to accommodate only 605 of our capacity of 2,200. We need to sell a minimum of 1,500 tickets.”

She also sees an “apples and oranges” problem.

“We want to avoid having the state treating a 10,000-acre outdoor venue the same as a 5,000-square-foot indoor auditorium.” At one risk level, the state would restrict capacity for both venues to 250 people instead of a percentage of capacity.

Briggs says the Britt won’t be able to open in 2021 without workable guidelines by mid-summer.

Bend’s Les Schwab Amphitheater has been operating for 20 years, booking summer and fall concerts as well as hosting a beer festival and competitive runs.

“We need to plan ahead for success in July and beyond,” said Marney Smith, general manager of the amphitheater. “Tours are routing now, and we can’t give them firm commitments. And it’s too easy for them to skip us.”

Considering the state’s planning to make vaccinations available soon for all adults 16 and older, Smith believe it’s reasonable to assume venues could operate at 100% capacity two months after that.

“There’s more guidance in California and Washington,” she said. “I wish we could have more dialogue with the state. We need their help in order to go forward.”

The last time an event was held at the amphitheater was Oct. 4, 2019. There were no events in 2020.

“If we aren’t able to do something this year, it will take us a long time to catch up,” she said.

Events venues, which have a big impact on the economies in which they operate, are concerned that lack of clarity about guidelines and the uncertainty that produces will do enormous economic damage.

In a letter to the governor prior to the online meeting, events representatives asked that venues should be allowed to operate at full capacity 30 days after a county hits the minimal spread level (“low risk”) and the vaccine has been made available to all adults.

The governor’s team has not responded to the letter, nor was it addressed in the March 31 meeting.

The governor’s guidelines for the “lower risk” category allow indoor gatherings at 75% capacity for faith-based institutions while outdoor entertainment establishments are limited to 50%.

The events sector believes the guidelines are unfair and will hamper progress toward the full reopening of the economy.

Industry sentiment was summarized in an April 5 news release from the group:

“The decisions made today can bring Oregon back to a position of strength and sustainability for jobs, tourism and its tax base.

“Alternatively, poor decisions will result in ... damage to an industry that is already poised on the edge of economic collapse.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.