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As St. Louis venues drop coronavirus safety rules, concertgoers party like it’s 2019

Leon Hatter, a St. Louis Symphonic Orchestra usher from Florrisant, checks over a vaccination card belonging to Mary Neal, of University City, on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, before a performance of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra at Powell Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Symphony Orchestra usher Leon Hatter checks ticketholder Mary Neal's vaccination card in December. Such scenes are a thing of the past as venues drop most coronavirus safety protocols, though they could return.

The rules for attending live performances in St. Louis have changed dramatically since St. Louis and St. Louis County officials let indoor mask mandates expire in March.

In addition to dropping mask requirements, most venues have stopped requiring attendees to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test.

Some artists do still require venues to keep such rules in effect, even if for one night only.

Fans wanting to see Bastille at the Factory in Chesterfield on May 31 won’t need to wear a mask or show proof of COVID-19 vaccination. But anyone headed to Still Woozy at the same venue the next night will.

Yves Tumor was the only artist in the past several weeks who required masks and proof of vaccination for a show at the Old Rock House in St. Louis, said managing partner Tim Weber.

“My belief the whole time was that by me creating a mandate, I wasn't really going to convince anybody to do anything. But if their favorite artists ask them to do something, maybe it would push them in one direction or another,” Weber said. “And boy, most of the artists have gotten rid of all of their policies and restrictions.”

As local levels of infections, COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have decreased since the peak of the Omicron variant outbreak in January, audience sizes have swelled. Like many music venues in the U.S., the Old Rock House had been seeing historically large numbers of no-shows — for months, only 70% of ticket-buyers were actually turning up for their events. In the past three to four weeks, Weber said that rate is back to a pre-pandemic norm of about 98%.

At venues operated by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, including the Dark Room, the Grandel and the Big Top, event producers have the option of enforcing pandemic safety protocols — but few do.

“While the community level [of coronavirus infections] is low, we're allowing presenters and artists to make the decisions for their productions that they're most comfortable with and that their audiences are most comfortable with,” Executive Director Chris Hansen said. “We’re at a moment where we get this reprieve. And I’m seeing that level of comfort, and just more and more people getting to enjoy things the way they used to enjoy them.”

Audiences seem increasingly comfortable.

“I think the proof is in the attendance,” Hansen said.

St. Louis Symphony Orchestra stopped requiring masks or proof of vaccination from concertgoers at Powell Hall in April.

The Fabulous Fox Theatre no longer requires masks or proof of vaccination for attendees of touring Broadway musicals that perform there. There were few masks to be seen in the audience at a recent performance of “Hamilton.” But local theater companies must still follow rules they agreed to with the actors union earlier in the pandemic.

For its production of “The 39 Steps,” which ended in April, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis continued to require audience members to mask and show proof of vaccination. The theater also maintained its policy of holding back some seats from sale, to provide for social distancing within the audience.

Its contracts with Actors’ Equity Association and four other unions that represent stage managers, designers and other creative staff are in effect until July, Managing Director Danny Williams said. Those deals require regular coronavirus testing for staff in addition to audience masking.

By requiring masking and proof of vaccination longer than many other venues, Williams said, the Rep received more pushback from the public than it did earlier in the pandemic.

“We’d get some people who would come up to us and say, ‘Thank you so much for continuing to socially distance, it's a great relief,’” Williams said. “And then we'd have other people sending us emails saying, ‘How dare you continue to do this.’”

The Rep will not provide for social distancing in the audience when it starts its next season in August. It is holding off on decisions about other safety measures.

After producing abbreviated productions on a temporary outdoor stage last year, Opera Theatre of St. Louis will return in May to full-length productions at Webster University’s Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts. Neither the Muny nor St. Louis Shakespeare Festival have announced plans to require masks, proof of vaccination or social distancing when they start their new seasons in June.

Kranzberg leaders will continue to monitor the level of local coronavirus infections and may bring restrictions back if necessary, Hansen said.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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