Live theater was left out of California’s COVID-19 plan. But now it gets guidelines


Live theater in California cannot return indoors until each county in question completely cycles out of the color-coded tiers that serve as a blueprint for reopening, the California Department of Health said Friday.

The department released updated guidelines for live performances that go into effect on April 1 and that stipulate no indoor performances will be allowed as long as the county in question sits in the purple, red, orange or yellow tier. Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties will move from the purple tier to the red tier by Monday — and will need to see further improvements in COVID-19 case counts and infection rates to progress through orange and yellow.

A county will have to enter the orange tier before live performance can resume outdoors, and at that point audiences will be limited to 20% capacity. When a county enters the yellow tier, capacity increases to 25%.

In both cases, reservations and assigned seating will be required, and attendance will be limited to regional guests coming from within a 120-mile radius.

Prior to Friday, no such guidelines existed, leaving local theater leaders wondering how to plan future programming. The absence of guidelines was particularly challenging for theaters that rely on touring shows booked months in advance.

Sienna Spencer-Markles, a representative for the Los Angeles County Health Department, said by email that the county is relying on the state for guidance on reopenings. She added that county health officer Dr. Muntu Davis said live performance has been discussed but local officials were in a “wait and see” mode because infection and vaccination rates could change state guidance.

Guidelines for live theater stand in stark contrast to the rules for movie theaters. Whereas no live theater in Los Angeles County may operate indoors while the region is in the red tier, indoor movie theaters can operate at 25% capacity or 100 people, whichever is fewer.

“We are both surprised and disappointed to find that the live performing arts continue to be treated so differently from other sectors with similar concerns” said Meghan Pressman, the managing director and chief executive of Center Theatre Group, which closed its Ahmanson Theatre, Mark Taper Forum and Kirk Douglas Theatre exactly one year ago in response to the emerging pandemic. In her emailed response to a Times query Friday, Pressman said it was “distressing that as economic concerns are quoted to advocate for the reopening of other indoor businesses, there is little discussion of the 4.1 million people employed in the arts and culture industry or the $8.7 billion that our sector adds to the GDP.