Theater leaders have said that current coronavirus restrictions are sufficient to stave off the risk of infection amid rising COVID-19 rates, adding that if stricter restrictions arrive on public events, theaters would apply for exemptions.
The theater bosses also noted that no coronavirus outbreaks had been traced to a theater performance to date, unlike with some other public events.
In a statement to Minister of Culture Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa), board chair of the Estonian Association of Performing Arts (Eesti Etendusasutuste Liit) Margus Allikmaa said while future COVID-19 restrictions seem inevitable, public events and other activities with lower infection risk might go ahead, ERR's Culture portal reports.
At present, for indoor events the limit is 750 people or 50 percent occupancy, whichever is lower, though concert halls and theaters with fixed seating, i.e. most of them, can go to 750 regardless of the occupancy, Allikmaa said.
"This exception is justified from the point of view of fighting the virus, because it is known that there have been no infections related to this type of public event," Allikmaa noted.
Reducing the overall numbers permitted to attend may lead to the performing arts association requesting a permanent exemption for this reason, he said; dispersal and social distancing would also be ensured in this case, he said.
Stricter restrictions would otherwise have a severe impact on a sector already hard-hit, Allikmaa said, and lead to the cancellation of events and/or requests for state aid.
Allikmaa: Audiences, theaters themselves acting responsibly
Theaters are already instituting measures such as making disinfectants available and collecting audience data.
Audiences themselves have acted responsibly, he added.
"The fact that the audience themselves keeps their distance is testimony to them as well as to ushers and theater attendants," Allikmaa said, noting that further attention was being paid during the current rising rates.
Theaters make masks recommended, not mandatory
At the same time theaters are recommending the wearing of masks, though this is not mandatory.
Velvo Väli, director of Rakvere Theater, a major theater nationally despite the relatively small size of its host town, told ERR that this was sufficient at present.
"We do not think we should go back, either to 50 percent occupancy or to this 2 + 2 rule, right now. We don't think this constitutes a reduction, because from our point of view it doesn't matter if there are 700, 500 or 400 people in the hall, they're sitting still in the hall, in the same space," he said.
Tanel Tomson, communications manager at Estonian Drama Theater (Draamateater) in Tallinn, says that audience dispersal is happening, as spectators are released at the end of performances in batches, and also access to cloakrooms has been widened.
"When a performance at the drama theater is about to end in both the great and small halls simultaneously, we have been asking the audience in the small hall to remain in their seats for short time while the great hall, which is closer to and below the cloakrooms, can head out, before we then let the audience in the other halls out towards the exits," Tomson said.
Larger theater showings in Estonia are generally a formal affair, with patrons heading as a rule to the cloakroom to drop off or pick up their coats and other garments.
The Vanemuine Theater in Tartu carries out similar practices.
Kristiina Alliksaar, the theater's director, told ERR's culture portal: "We request that people stay in their seats at the end of a show, then the ushers coordinate departure from the hall, and we ask that people try to be as dispersed as possible during breaks. We have added coffee counters to help with this; these open in full even if we don't have a full audience."
Masks are being worn more and more, according to director of Pärnu's Endla Theater Roland Leesment, who said doling out free masks was viable.
Performing arts association leader: People still want to go the the theater
"Our ticket prices have not risen here in any way; there may be an even further drop, so we can think about how to deal with this. However, it is more important in any case that the show goes on. This is both vital for audiences and for the theater," Leesment said.
As for masks, Margus Allimaa said that these had become a new norm.
Vanemuine is a little bit larger, however, Kristiina Alliksaar said, meaning free masks, which could number up to a thousand per night, is not viable.
Meanwhile, Velvo Väli at the Rakvere Theater said that if the government made mask-wearing mandatory, he would welcome it, though as things stand this is not something the theater could provide for as long as it is recommended only.
People still want to go to the theater in spite, or perhaps even because, of the current situation, economic problems and restrictions, Allikmaa went on.
"Theater helps people escape from the worries of everyday life for a few hours. As long as going to the theater is a low-risk activity, people should be allowed to continue"
Editor: Andrew Whyte