Live performers in Santa Barbara are challenging the current countywide ban on public performances, indoor and outdoor.
According to the Health Officer Order implemented in early May, businesses that were required to close physical locations included amphitheaters, concert halls, performing arts centers, dance halls or studios, live performance venues, music events and concerts.
These businesses have not yet reached the point of reopening or been able to obtain a safe reopening plan.
Members of the performing community, and musicians themselves, have voiced opposition to the ban, and question why they cannot obtain regulations and adapt like other businesses have.
“It really doesn’t make a lot of sense that we can have outdoor food services but not outdoor concerts,” Kostis Protopapas, the artistic and general director of Opera Santa Barbara, told the News-Press. “We can apply all the safety rules the government has put to other industries to our own industry. We would like to have the discussion too.”
Mr. Protopapas, along with several other employees in the live performance industry, has spearheaded the Public Performance Revitalization Proposal, which calls for an ad hoc committee to develop and propose strict protocols for review and approval by the Santa Barbara City Council.
More than 20 community members volunteered themselves to serve the cause in some capacity, including on the ad hoc committee.
Mr. Protopapas said many other jurisdictions all over the country have navigated holding public performances safely.
“The ban basically puts an entire class of workers to indefinite unemployment,” he said. “While we understand that bringing people back into theaters may have to wait, there’s no reason why we can’t have some activities that will be sanctioned and regulated by county health with limited numbers, social distancing and mandatory masks with controlled ingress and egress.”
He said he wonders “if the county is regulating our industry because it’s not safe or we’re not essential.”
“The opportunity for safe community experiences and the healing power of arts is extremely important right now,” Mr. Protopapas continued. “My industry is very prepared to keep the community safe. It’s going to take effort and cost, but we can make it happen for the people who really need live performance.”
The authors of the proposal included the following suggestions to hold live performances at some capacity: working closely with the city, county Public Health Department and local restaurants and retailers among other partners; studying and modeling policies from cities such as Santa Monica, Boulder and Boston that have achieved safe live performances; a modest city permitting fee for approved acts; a warning or fine structure for performers who do not adhere to policy; a limited sound level/DB that ambassadors could monitor; appropriate spacing between acts with designated locations; performer/performance/anti-crowd congregation protocols; and virtual auditions of all acts/performers/street artists/for quality and their commitment to the cultural experience they want to create.
Steve Epstein, a local musician and real estate agent, wrote the proposal.
“I certainly understand why they don’t want 5,000 crammed into the Santa Barbara Bowl. I get that,” Mr. Epstein told the News-Press. “But what nobody understands is why Spencer the Gardener and his buddies can’t set up on the closed section of State Street.”
He said people are “congregating” while safely distanced in other ways, so he believes the same can occur with public performance.
“Frankly, if you can do manicures and pedicures, I think you can have a guy playing the guitar,” he said. “How cool would it be to have a cellist and a violinist at dinner? Most of the shops and restaurants have been bringing things out to musicians, saying ‘Thank you so much for entertaining our patrons.’”
Mr. Epstein has been involved in the Santa Barbara music scene his whole life, and said the response he’s gotten from this proposal is that “the community is starving for something like this.”
“Some of these musicians are going to go bankrupt and be on the street because a lot of them are barely making it during non-COVID times,” he said. “Other sectors of the economy made a lot of noise and people quickly adapted to do something to keep our precious restaurants from going under.
“But for some reason, the performance segment of our economy is lost on people. They just don’t see it in the same light.”