WXXI AM News

Reopening Rochester's culture remains an open question

Jun 3, 2020

Mendoza says even if arts organizations begin to reopen, attending large concerts might not be a good idea.
Credit Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival

Sitting in front of a wall filled with framed certificates testifying to his medical expertise, Monroe County Health Department Commissioner Dr. Michael Mendoza introduced a series of charts. These were tabulations of surveys distributed to representatives from the area's entertainment industry. Questions weighing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

When do these bar owners and museum directors think they will be ready to reopen? And what capacity will be allowed at these cultural venues and institutions, considering the cautious approach to reopening that is being recommended by health experts?

The overwhelming answer, as told by the charts: "I have no idea."

And to the question of whether the arts community is receiving help in its decision-making for the anticipated reopening, nearly 50 percent indicated, "No direct guidance."

The answers are likely not an indictment of the state's leadership, according to Mendoza and Marc Cohen, chief of staff with the Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce. Both praised New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Bob Duffy, the president and CEO of the chamber. 

Rather, the uncertainty reflects the many variables that must be weighed. That string quartet is probably safe enough, but the horn section may be a killer.

And it was Cohen who quietly dropped the language most feared as the state, and the country, struggle to climb out from beneath COVID-19: "All the signs point to a resurgence come the fall."

Wednesday afternoon's online webinar, attended by about 350 people, was hosted by the Rochester Area Community Foundation and Rochester Fringe Festival Producer Erica Fee. Simeon Banister, vice president of community programs at the foundation, emphasized that the community must protect the arts, which educate and inspire.

And he referenced what's happening in the streets of the United States this week as well: "Arts helps us to explore what justice looks like."

Mendoza backed up that sentiment. "The benefits of the arts are undeniable. Unfortunately, the risks are very real. And they're hard to calculate." 

And civil unrest entered the equation this past weekend. Two of Rochester's high-profile arts institutions, Geva Theatre Center and the Memorial Art Gallery, on Wednesday released announcements in support of Black Lives Matter and the nationwide protests against racism.

Geva said it was postponing Friday's fundraiser, the Curtain Call Virtual Gala, as such activity is "not appropriate at this time." Geva further added, "While the theatre may be facing challenges, there are other needs to be attended to in the face of multiple national crises. Geva stands in solidarity with all those who are committed to fighting racism."

As part of the Memorial Art Gallery's fundraising efforts, last week, Director Jonathan Binstock had his hair cut while seated on the steps outside the museum. But the museum also released a statement on Wednesday that read it "cannot and will not idly observe acts of racism and violence committed against members of our community and our country, nor can we abide by violence and lawlessness.

"We stand in solidarity, and as steadfast partners, with anyone committed to breaking the systems that create and maintain racism, oppression, bigotry, and inequity. We invite you to visit MAG -- whether online or in-person when we reopen -- and to take the opportunity to view yourself and the world we live in through another person's eyes. To understand the richness and breadth of creativity of people of color and to share this knowledge is to take a small but meaningful step toward social justice."

Cohen said he gets 300 emails and 100 phone calls a day from bar owners and dog groomers eager to re-open. "I promise I hear you," he said. "And I promise Bob Duffy hears you."

Mendoza suggests the arts must embrace the same pandemic preparedness as has been outlined for the rest of the world and its endeavors. Maintain 6 feet of distance, Mendoza said. Six feet, he said, is "the right balance between safety and not being excessive." Wear a mask when not at home. Wash your hands.

"The highest risks that you can think of as a category," Mendoza said, "are concerts and football games."

And there are so many variables. Benefit and risk is a nuanced calculation, Mendoza said. The negatives include close approximation to other people, the level of activity required, the duration of the exposure. Are you outdoors, how's the air flow? Fifty percent of the people who have COVID-19 do not know they have it.

You may want to visit an older, sick relative. But an activity that can be done any day is something that can wait.

"Just because something is permitted," Mendoza said, "doesn't make it a good idea."

Even classical music must be approached with caution. COVID-19 is a respiratory virus. It moves among us through breathing, talking and coughing. Sneezing is the howitzer of spread. 

And as Mendoza noted, "We know that singing is a very high-risk endeavor."

Jeff Spevak is WXXI's Arts & Life editor and reporter. He can be reached at jspevak@wxxi.org.