City of Aspen to require same-day testing at Wheeler for unvaccinated
Move adds another layer of protection to fast-spreading Omicron variant of COVID-19, officials say
In order to enter the Wheeler Opera House for a performance, patrons who cannot prove they are vaccinated will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test that is taken the same day that they enter the facility.
Aspen City Council on Tuesday approved the policy change, which is a deviation from the current requirement of proof of either full vaccination or a negative COVID test within 72 hours of attendance.
All staff, performers and attendees are still required to wear masks in the city-owned building.
The same-day negative test requirement is in response to the current rapid increase in Covid cases in the city, as well as the apparent greatly shortened transmission time after exposure, said Lisa Rigsby Peterson, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House.
The new protocol can be implemented as soon as seven days.
“The change from a 72-hour negative test to a same-day negative test is proposed as the next layer of protection during a time of high transmissibility within our community to allow the Wheeler to remain open and serve the public,” she wrote in a memo to council.
She also asked and received from council the flexibility to limit attendance at Wheeler events through socially-distanced seating measures to roughly 50% of regular capacity during this period of rapid growth in positive cases.
“We believe that with these two changes to our COVID protocols we can continue to remain open and keep people as safe as we possibly can,” she told council Tuesday during its regular meeting. “We really feel as if remaining open for the Wheeler is something that is good for our community, whether it’s celebrating Winterskol or having Aspen History 101 and Aspen Extreme on Friday night, whether it’s being open for physics lectures, our Metropolitan Opera screenings, all of those things are really important now.”
Councilwoman Rachel Richards said she not only supported same-day testing but would go further and require all people in the Wheeler to be vaccinated, much like the Aspen Skiing Co. is doing in some of its buildings and other venues in town.
She noted that recently in Canada proof of vaccination became a requirement to enter liquor and marijuana stores, and as a result, people seeking vaccinations shot up to something like 400%.
“I think if they made a vaccine requirement on airline travel we wouldn’t be having quite the problems we’re having yet again,” Richards said.
Since the enactment of additional public health safety measures last fall, the Wheeler Opera House has hosted thousands of patrons to public events, Rigsby Peterson noted.
The protocols dictated in the emergency administrative order that went into effect on Oct. 8 have been effective, as no known transmission cases have been attributed to performances at the Wheeler — other than an internal cast transmission from artist to artist during a rental event, which did not affect staff nor patrons, she said.
“Mask wearing compliance has been excellent, and vaccination and negative test verifications have been met with nearly universal good will and compliance by the public,” Rigsby Peterson wrote.
Based on recent experience, Rigsby Peterson said the majority of Wheeler patrons are fully vaccinated and the new same-day testing policy will impact few people.
The bar in the opera house’s lobby will remain closed, as it has been since August.
“When our advisory board and then council directed us in September to require mask wearing at all times during public events at the Wheeler, there was no way to reconcile selling food and drinks and requiring people to be masked at all times,” Rigsby Peterson told The Aspen Times via email. “Preventing the spread of COVID in every way possible is a responsibility we are taking very, very seriously.”
She added that with the emergence of the omicron variant in New York City, Broadway houses also are closing all concessions in their theaters for the same reason.
There is minimal loss in revenue in shutting down concessions, as they are mostly a patron amenity and a majority of sales occur 10 minutes before a show and during a typical 15-minute intermission, Rigsby Peterson said.
The financial impact from changes approved Tuesday by council likely will be in the form of foregone ticket revenue at reduced capacity performances.
The Wheeler staff feel that the ability to remain safely open as a community resource outweighs the temporary reduction in ticket revenue, particularly in light of the alternative of no revenue at all, Rigsby Peterson said.
The policy shift might have a financial impact to attendees if they are paying for same-day testing, and that could mitigated by the soon-to-open local processing laboratory for same-day PCR test results for all free COIVD-19 testing locations in the valley, according to Rigsby Peterson.
As has been true since this past October, the opportunity to receive a rapid test on the Wheeler parcel for a $25 fee will continue to be available to patrons prior to scheduled performances.
The new protocols for the Wheeler are designed to operate in as safe a manner as possible and help to prevent another shutdown as experienced in 2020 and early 2021.
An alternative could have been to shut down the Wheeler again, which would result in canceling performances and missing out on rental revenue.
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