The pandemic ended one week ago. OK, that’s an exaggeration, but at least COVID-19 was held at bay in one crucial arena of a full and spirited life.
Last Tuesday, my wife and I attended a concert at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts featuring Herbie Hancock. The nearly packed audience of 1,300 fans made it the first concert we’ve attended in a year and a half that didn’t feature a socially distanced audience. There was not an unoccupied seat in our row, the rows in front of us or behind us, or anywhere nearby.
The 81-year-old Hancock and his four much younger bandmates produced the kind of spirit-lifting, high-energy music that had the crowd in constant motion and in full voice. Applause during and between the nonstop pieces was punctuated with cheers, hoots, and cries of “We love you, Herbie!”
It was the kind of audience reaction that adds to the performance, connects the audience to the performers, and intensifies the excitement. And we could join in the joy for one reason.
Three screening tents set up outside the Tobin checked everyone for proof of COVID-19 vaccination or a recent negative test for the virus. And once inside, everyone was required to keep their masks on throughout the performance. Ushers patrolled the aisles to remind anyone who slipped.
This didn’t provide an absolute, 100 percent safe shield from the coronavirus germs that explode from the mouths of loud singers with a power that has decimated church choirs. But together, the two precautions — vaccines and masks — reduced the odds so effectively that our nerves were calmed. Despite the enthusiastic exhalations of more than a thousand nearby mouths and noses, we were probably safer than if we were dining at a restaurant indoors.
(If you are skeptical about the effectiveness of protective masks and you don’t mind a bit of bathroom humor, click here for a graphic explanation of how masks work, and how we wear them for ourselves, but even more for others.)
Christopher Novosad, the Tobin’s vice president of marketing, said there was very little resistance to the vaccine proof requirement. He said he talked to a number of grateful people who said they felt “more comfortable and secure.” I’m not surprised; COVID-19 is a scary business, especially with the current delta variant. Despite the noisy minority, a healthy majority of Americans will take whatever precautions they can and appreciate others who do the same.
But the vaccination requirement wasn’t the Tobin’s decision. We owed the safety standards to the demands of Herbie Hancock himself, which explains why he got vigorous applause when, before sitting down to play, he said something to the effect that he doesn’t favor people dying.
Novosad said Hancock’s performance was the first time all the auditorium’s seats were in use without social distancing since the pandemic struck. Because the requirements made such sense for public safety and since they did not provoke a significant angry response, I asked Novosad why the Tobin itself didn’t require the measures for all such concerts.
“We can’t really do that with the governor’s mandate,” he said. Last month Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting any “public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds” from requiring a “consumer” to provide vaccination proof to receive a service or enter a place.
The elegant Tobin Center is operated by a nonprofit corporation, but the City of San Antonio contributed its former Municipal Auditorium and an adjacent building together valued at $41 million and Bexar County passed a $100 million bond issue for construction of the facility.
One might think that if the order prohibits the Tobin Center from making the rules itself, it would prohibit it from enforcing Hancock’s rules. The governor apparently finds it more politically acceptable to tie the hands of local officials in public health matters than to stand up to popular performing stars.
Novosad said the Tobin Center needs to respect the wishes of the performers. “Otherwise they will cancel, and we can’t afford that,” he said. The pandemic, of course, has been devastating to the Tobin Center’s bottom line, as it has been to that of other performing arts venues.
So, perhaps ironically, Monday night’s sold-out appearance by former Georgia legislator and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams did not require proof of vaccination, although Novosad said the Tobin would enforce the wearing of masks inside. But on Saturday night, you will need proof of vaccination under the rules set by Michael Nesmith and Micky Dolenz for the Monkees’ “Farewell Tour” performance.
Ladies and gentlemen: Put your hands together for the Monkees. And, if you want, scream and whoop — if you have your masks on.