'So Many Unrecoverable Costs': How Coronavirus Is Altering D.C.'s Arts Scene As the coronavirus continues to spread across the D.C. region, local arts leaders consider the economic impact of cancelling upcoming performances and events.
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'So Many Unrecoverable Costs': How Coronavirus Is Altering D.C.'s Arts Scene

'So Many Unrecoverable Costs': How Coronavirus Is Altering D.C.'s Arts Scene

Venue managers around Washington worry about the potential effects of the coronavirus outbreak on ticket sales. Here, a man waits for a movie to start at the Uptown Theater in 2009. erin m/Flickr hide caption

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This story was updated March 11 at 12:20 p.m.

Staff at a Bethesda theater are learning how to disinfect cloth theater seats. A D.C. contemporary dance company just cancelled its annual fundraising gala. And a choral group in the city now allows its singers to attend rehearsals via Facebook Live.

As the coronavirus spreads, local arts leaders are trying to address the concerns of patrons who want to avoid crowded public spaces, while also managing the economic ramifications. Declining ticket sales and cancelled performances could lead to significant financial troubles for some arts organizations, especially for smaller groups that rely on individual shows for large portions of their annual revenue.

"Everybody is just walking a fine line," says Nicole Hertvik, the editor of DC Metro Theater Arts, an online publication that covers the region's performing arts scene. "They're taking all the precautions they can, but at the same time they don't want to scare everybody away."

Don't Return Your Tickets...Yet

Most organizations are operating normally and continuing with scheduled performances, though the number of cancellations seems to be increasing hourly. On Wednesday, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser's office issued a health advisory recommending that non-essential mass gatherings, including conferences and conventions, be postponed or cancelled. It defines mass gatherings as events with 1,000 or more people.

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Find a full list of all local event cancellations here.

The average age of arts patrons could be a particular cause for concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults seem to be at higher risk of developing serious COVID-19 illness.

"The theater audience in D.C. skews older, and particularly for the orchestra and the opera," says Whitney Fishburn, a local critic for classical music, contemporary music and opera. "If you happen to be a theater patron, you're probably not going to go out right now."

The D.C. chorus community has already been directly affected by a reported case of the virus. The first known case in the District was a rector at Christ Church in Georgetown who tested positive for COVID-19 on March 7. The church places an emphasis on music, and some members of the church choir who have been told to self-quarantine are also members of other choirs in the city.

And as infection numbers rise, organizations are facing decisions that could be even more destabilizing.

The Costs Of Cancellation

Arts institutions already face major revenue losses from dwindling ticket sales and cancelled fundraising events.

"The arts are economic drivers of the communities we're in, so the implications of a long-term shutdown could be very serious," says Ed Zakreski, the managing director of Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Md.

In the choral music world, ticket sales for upcoming performances have slowed to barely a trickle. The Cathedral Choral Society, one of the District's major choral ensembles, is scheduled to perform a series of concerts next weekend. "It would be brutal if we had to cancel," says executive director Chris Eanes. "There are so many unrecoverable costs with these major concerts."

If a concert were canceled, Eanes would likely still need to pay the orchestra musicians hired to perform, due to the union's cancellation policy. He would also need to refund tickets.

The comedy scene has been affected as well. Washington Improv Theater's biggest show run of the year, the Fighting Improv Smackdown Tournament, typically brings in more than 25% of the organization's annual box office revenue. The improv competition is scheduled to kick off on March 19, but executive and artist director Mark Chalfant says he's been nervously considering the financial impact of cancelling both the tournament and the entire spring semester of improv classes.

"The economic impact is real," Chalfant says. "Worst case scenario, if the entire spring semester were to be cancelled, that's a total of our tuition revenue, which is half our total revenue. We're talking north of $120,000."

More and more arts organizations have begun cancelling events due to concerns from patrons. The biggest cancellation so far is the D.C. Environmental Film Festival: The annual event was supposed to kick off on March 12 with screenings of more than 160 films. It will now be replaced with a smaller festival in the fall, and some films will be made available online next week as part of a "virtual" festival.

D.C.'s Chamber Dance Project cancelled its March 29 fundraising gala on Tuesday and replaced it with an online auction.

The health concerns will also have a ripple effect outside of arts organizations themselves. Hertvik says a handful of her freelance critics no longer feel comfortable attending shows, leading her to wonder what would happen if all her writers decide they don't want to go. "That's basically the service we provide as a business, so it's clearly a problem," she says.

A Focus On Cleanliness And Flexibility

No change is too small for some institutions, as they seek to prevent potential infections. At the Kennedy Center, patrons are no longer allowed to bring up souvenir cups for re-use at concession stands. And at Strathmore in Bethesda, facilities staff are being trained to share smiles with audience members, not handshakes or hugs.

Many theaters and venues are sending reassuring emails to patrons with details about their ramped-up cleaning policies. A spokesperson for I.M.P., the company that owns music venues like The Anthem, Lincoln Theatre and 9:30 Club, says they are adding supplementary cleaning staff and creating hand sanitizing stations.

Theater managers are also communicating with one another about best practices. Studio Theatre in D.C. recently sent out an email about disinfecting seats after every show, and Zakreski of Round House immediately reached out for more information.

"Everyone's been extremely generous about sharing their information," he said.

Meanwhile, a number of theaters have adjusted their ticket exchange policies in order to maintain positive customer relationships and to encourage people who are feeling sick to stay home. Washington's Mosaic Theater has removed its exchange fees, and Strathmore is adding more flexibility to its exchange policy.

National Theatre in D.C. offers refunds on a case-by-case basis: "Some can get exchanges for future shows, especially if they're being quarantined, and others just need to be reassured," says spokesperson Ashley Birdsell.

Some ensembles are also adjusting their rehearsal attendance requirements. The Cathedral Choral Society typically allows members to only miss two rehearsals but is now making exceptions for people with health concerns.

Arts Organizations Around The World React

Some cities and countries with high numbers of reported cases have taken more drastic measures, including closing all museums and cultural spaces or cancelling all large events.

San Francisco's city government has banned gatherings of more than 50 people over the next two weeks. The ban only applies to city-owned facilities, but a number of arts organizations including the San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Boys Chorus have followed the city's lead and cancelled their own upcoming events.

Seattle has stopped short of banning public gatherings, but KUOW reports that a number of festivals and arts events have been cancelled. And in Hollywood, the release of the new James Bond movie, "No Time to Die," was pushed back to November.

In China, where the virus originated, museums and art galleries have been closed since late January. The prime minister of Italy, which has the most reported cases of any country outside of China, recently closed down all museums as part of a countrywide lockdown.

The Italian maestro Simeone Tartaglione, currently the conductor of Catholic University's orchestra in D.C., is more concerned about his family back in Italy than his performances here, which have all been well-attended. "It feels like they are in a war right now, but we cannot do anything to help them, he wrote in an email to WAMU. "It is indeed a very strange helpless feeling."

This story was updated to include information about the D.C. health advisory issued on Mar. 11.

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