Reopening of SF Opera Marred for this Reviewer by Lax Enforcement of COVID Protocols

by Charles Kruger

Last night, September 3rd, I was delighted to have the opportunity to return to the SF Opera for a production of Puccini’s TOSCA, especially as it would be my first opportunity to see tenor Michael Fabiano in his first American performance as Cavaradossi, Tosca’s doomed lover. He was spectacular, but, unfortunately I did not remain at the War Memorial Opera House for the entire performance.

The reason for my early departure was what I perceived as lax enforcement of COVID mask protocols in the theatre lobby.

This is my eye witness account of what I experienced.

The stated COVID protocols at the SF opera required that all attendees and staff be fully vaccinated. I have no doubt that this protocol was successfully met—everybody who entered the building had to provide ID and proof of vaccination and each person was given a paper bracelet to indicate they had done so. Highest praise for managing this requirement efficiently and reliably.

However, there is an additional requirement that masks be worn at all times inside the building unless “engaged in eating or drinking.” Further instructions are provided to explain exactly what that means: masks are to be removed only while sipping or eating—after taking a sip or a bite, the mask should be in place. One would assume that nobody should be engaged in active conversation while unmasked. It is generally not possible to simultaneously chew, sip and converse. Of course, I suppose one could converse with a full mouth, spitting food over one’s companions, but, honestly, this does not seem a likely scenario among opera patrons.

In the lobby, prior to the performance, I noticed a group of four patrons, standing at the centrally-located table with drinks for approximately 45 minutes prior to the performance. They were front and center, high profile. Of the four, three had no visible masks, and one had a mask hanging around his chin. During their 45 minutes of drinking, I observed them multiple times and never did I see them masked. Since there unmasked presence while conversing was unmistakable, I was curious to see whether any SF Opera staff would speak to them about this. I did not not observe that.

During the first intermission, I sought out the house manager to express my concern and find out what the policies might be in terms of enforcement. She said that she had, indeed, noticed the party I mentioned and had spoken to them at least twice asking them to mask up and they had done so. I wondered how many times she would remind them again before considering this a violation of policy and request that they go outside the building. She told me that as long as they put on a mask when requested, she didn’t feel she could ask them to step outside as the policy allowed eating and drinking. She would only aggressively enforce (sending someone outside) if they flatly refused to put on a mask when asked.

At the second intermission, I AGAIN observed the same party behaving in the same fashion. I again spoke to the house manager, who seemed to be very irritated. I asked her again whither repeated violations of the masking rules would warrant taking action, and she again reminded me that patrons are permitted to eat and drink. I reminded her that this particular group, directly observed by me, were conversing without masks—they did not put them back on between bites or sips (as required by the guidelines). I also reminded that she told me she had noticed the same group, and spoken to them more than once. I reminded her of her statement that as long as patrons masked up when asked directly, no action would be taken, unless the patron were to flatly refuse. She denied having said this and when I insisted on my recollection, our conversation became very heated as she said I was lying. Also, during this same conversation she wondered why I was so distressed about the mask protocols, given that everybody in the building was vaccinated.

Well, I have this to say about that: IF it is the position of SF Opera that the mask protocols are relatively unimportant on the ground that “everybody in the building is vaccinated”—then why are they in place? And if they are to be in place, why are they not aggressively enforced?

The issue of aggressive enforcement of mask protocols at theatres is a difficult one, and has arisen at many events.

After having attended multiple events in the past few weeks, I have concluded that regardless of what the stated protocols are, few if any theatre companies are willing to enforce them aggressively. I have heard of no instance where an individual has been asked to leave a theatre as a result of poor mask protocols.

I am also concerned that being assertive with theatre staff about this matter seems to result in some degree of stonewalling and “blame the messenger” rancor.

Nobody wants to see the theatres open more than I do! Attending the theatre is a central part of my life—for most of the past decade I have been in a theatre seat six to ten nights out of every month. I can’t imagine a life without theatre going.

However, given the current situation, and my experience at SF Opera and other venues, I have concluded that the industry is incapable of strictly enforcing COVID rules and that, when confronted by this difficulty, often responds defensively rather than proactively.

In my case, TOSCA will have to wait!

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