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Coronavirus: Arts and music venues may require face masks

By Robbie Meredith
BBC News NI Education Correspondent

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  • Coronavirus pandemic

Audiences at arts and entertainment venues like theatres may be asked to wear face masks and undergo temperature checks when they reopen.

These are among measures suggested in guidance produced by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (ACNI).

Singing and some musical performances are described as "higher-risk activities".

Theatres, arts centres, galleries and music venues have been closed since mid-March.

They have not yet been told by the NI Executive when they can reopen for indoor performances.

The Arts Council has previously warned that many venues and organisations face significant box office losses due to the prolonged closure.

To enable them to reopen to the public again, ACNI has produced a 76-page guidance document called 'In the Bubble of Our Making: Reopening the Arts in Northern Ireland'.

"We know that public confidence at returning to indoor events and performances is low - we have all seen the statistics on the low appetite for booking for future arts events, and the alarming time-lag there may be before even bookings are considered," the document said.

"The Arts Council is keen to see public performance spaces open in towns and cities across Northern Ireland, including sites for outdoor installations and exhibitions."

Each individual venue can use the ACNI guidance to introduce safety measures for staff, performers and members of the public.

image captionMLAs were told in May that the Lyric Theatre may only be able to hold 10% of its usual occupancy if it reopened

Venues are advised to adopt measures like social distancing, enhanced cleaning, one-way signs and hand sanitisers similar to other workplaces.

They will also keep records of anyone entering for 21 days to assist with contact tracing.

Venues will also have to consider whether audiences will have to wear masks or face coverings when they reopen - as they are "enclosed public spaces".

"Based on your risk assessment and taking into account audience expectation, you may decide that you will require all visiting public to wear face coverings as part of your new entry conditions," the ACNI document said.

"Current guidance states that wearing a face covering is recommended in situations where it is difficult to practice social distancing e.g. on public transport or in enclosed public spaces."

More performances, less people

There are some exceptions for young children, autistic people or those with respiratory conditions.

Venues will also decide if they need to introduce temperature checks for staff or audiences, although this is not mandatory.

The guidance also said that when venues reopen performances may need to be "shorter, fewer, oftener, safer".

Other measures may include:

  • Removing seats to create audience 'pods'
  • Smaller productions like one-person drama shows
  • Shorter performances in alternative venues and more outdoor performances, using spaces like bandstands
  • Holding more performances online

Theatres and other venues will have to reduce the number of people they can admit to ensure social distancing.

Members of the audience may only be able to sit together if they are from the same household or support bubble, for example.

If people are going to an exhibition or a gallery, they may have to book a time-slot in advance rather than 'walk in'.

image copyrightReuters
image captionTemperature checks will not be mandatory, but is contained in the guidance suggested to venues

However, ACNI has warned that admitting reduced numbers of people will put many venues in peril.

"It is financially impossible for live theatre, concerts, festivals and venues to operate with audience capacity reduced to 20% or 30%," they said.

"Paradoxically, some of Northern Ireland's most commercially effective arts organisations will now find themselves the worst affected."

Northern Ireland has received £33m as part of a UK government support package for arts venues but the executive has not yet decided how it should be spent.

The ACNI document also provides guidance to enable indoor music performances to take place again.

"Singing and playing wind and brass instruments, especially in groups, are considered higher risk activities because of the potential for aerosol production and the absence presently of developed scientific analysis to assess this specific risk," it said.

'Astonishing aptitude'

"The evidence and advice are being developed rapidly, but at this current time additional risk mitigation should be considered in these contexts."

For instance, if professional singers and musicians are performing they should maintain 3m social distancing from other performers and any audience.

The capacity in music venues will also be limited to allow for ventilation and appropriate social distancing if a concert is taking place indoors.

The chief executive of ACNI, Roisín McDonough, said that arts organisations had shown an "astonishing aptitude" in reaching audiences during lockdown.

"There is an enormous appetite for a return to live, in-person, arts, and we want to make sure that our venues have the most up-to-date guidance that will allow them to safely open their doors and welcome back audiences," she said.

"We can use this experience alongside the new guidance to expand our horizons and re-engage audiences in different ways, in different shapes and in different places."

The full guidance document is being published on the Arts Council of Northern Ireland's website.

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