Can there be performances in the age of COVID?

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Not a bad autumn, in dollars and cents, for the arts sector in Quebec. On Oct. 2, Premier François Legault and Culture Minister Nathalie Roy promised $50 million in funding to compensate arts presenters for lost ticket sales through March. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra quickly issued a communiqué expressing thanks.

Seven days later, the Opéra de Montréal was on the business end of a commitment of $700,000 in provincial funding to explore digital production options. The company pointed out in a press release that the grant will result in 900 fees paid to artists and production people. The money will trickle down.

Could presenters and performers battered by the pandemic ask for anything more? Could the Quebec government offer any other encouragement? Possibly only this: the opportunity to perform in public.

This not an easy time to argue in favour of even a limited reopening of concert halls, theatres and galleries. Spring seasons are falling like dominoes. The New York Philharmonic was among the latest to write off 2020-2021 as originally planned.

Montreal presenters, to their credit, have not given in or given up. They had their decisions made for them on Sept. 28 when the city (among other areas in Quebec) was declared a “red zone” for the apparently good reason that new cases were rising. 

The arts community initially responded to the announcement of a four-week closure, Oct. 1 to Oct. 28, with dismay. Observance of the pandemic guidelines established in August had been fastidious. And there was no evidence that concerts – attended by people who can fairly be called experts at behaving themselves – posed any serious risk to public health.

“Serious,” of course, is a cheater word that adds latitude to any discussion. At what point does a risk cease to be manageable and become serious? Many Canadians, pummeled by tendentious headlines and frightened by news anchors who have mastered the art of sounding ominous, have come to believe that there is no such thing as a COVID risk that fails to meet this threshold.

The statistics bear looking at. Reported new cases numbered 799 on Sept. 28, when the closure was announced, and 838 the following day. New cases from Oct. 8 to 12, as represented on Oct. 13: 1,102; 1,097; 942; 843; 814.

The corresponding figure on Aug. 15 was considerably less troubling: 67. Nevertheless, daily new cases (meaning positive tests) are more or less stable. This is the condition that corresponds to the familiar expression “flattening the curve.” Cases are not rising at a rate that threatens to exceed the capacity of the health system to accommodate them. 

As for deaths, these remain relatively low. Daily numbers from Oct. 8 to 12, not counting those of unknown date: 10, 4, 10, 5, 3.

“Relatively” is another cheater word. There is nothing relatively low about a death to the friends and relatives of the person who died. Still, it is necessary to ask what response is indicated, in a province of more than 8 million, when the daily COVID toll barely crosses into the realm of double digits.

Like most government actions, the shutdown of performance spaces was outwardly egalitarian. It might be patently obvious that a karaoke bar in Quebec City is a more likely vector of transmission than a spacious and well-ventilated concert hall seating a fraction of its normal capacity, but it is difficult to base public policy on such distinctions.

Impossible? I am not so sure. A system that permits exemptions linked to modern air circulation and adequate spacing would make it possible to open responsibly operated concert halls and museums while keeping the truly dangerous gatherings at bay.

It is interesting that Legault summoned a rationale for his prohibition of live performance. “…In a theatre, even if you’re only 250 people, even if you’re wearing a mask until you sit down, there is still a risk after an hour or two,” he was quoted as saying, as if sitting quietly in a concert hall can be compared meaningfully with the kind of activity that prevails in a bar.

There is also a risk of being hit by a bus when you exit the theatre. The likelihood of sustaining an injury in a traffic accident on any given day is small. The likelihood of dying is smaller still. Nevertheless, as pedestrians and motorists, we do not stay at home for fear of being involved in an accident. Instead we take appropriate precautions. And governments do not banish automobiles or outlaw crossing the street.

One distinction the authorities are willing to make is between activities they consider essential and those they consider optional. Schools are essential. Quite appropriately, schools remain open, despite the possibility that the rise in cases is correlated to their reopening.

Attending concerts is not essential in the sense we usually ascribe to that word. Even though there is no reported correlation between concert attendance and the rise in COVID-19 cases, this practice can be suspended without a public outcry.

Performing is essential, however, to performers, who dedicate their lives to meaningful interaction with the public. And clearly, arts lovers in Montreal do not view concerts, galleries and plays as frivolous extras. The vibrant arts scene in Montreal is central to its image as a great place to live.

There is no doubt that Legault and the CAQ are conscious of the hardship that COVID crackdowns have created in the arts sector. The support is obviously welcome. What is lacking is a recognition that letting performers earn their living is a better alternative by far.

For some the show will go on in a limited way. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra is making recorded concerts available online. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain performed a live webcast on Oct. 13 – such sessions are still allowed – and will record Fauré’s Requiem on Oct. 16 for a webcast debut on Nov. 6.

Some presenters have no such options. Happily, their passion for what they do outweighs their frustration. Most will wait patiently and resume their activities in November.

Maybe.

“We give ourselves four weeks with these measures to see if we can stop the second wave,” Legault said at the press conference at which he announced the suspension of performances. “I truly hope we do. But I cannot and will not make false promises.”

The premier could make a genuine promise to bear in mind the value of the arts to society, especially in a difficult time. He could recognize that attending performances does not pose an unsustainable risk when protocols are adhered to and measures taken.

More than this, decision-makers everywhere could apply restrictions with common sense rather than draconian, across-the-board rigidity. If risk cannot be eradicated, it can be managed. Managing risk is what public health policy is all about.

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About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. Since 2019, Arthur is co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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