New tier rules explained – how they might affect English theatres
We answer all your questions around the new lockdown
Given all the questions surrounding the new lockdown rules, we thought we'd provide a succinct guide to what's going on, what needs to be confirmed and how best to go forwards if you're a ticket holder.
What was announced?
Last night the Prime Minister announced that English theatres in parts of the UK will be able to re-open (hurrah!). However – only those in the lower two bands of a more stringent tiers system will be able to welcome audiences. Those in tier three will not be able to open for live shows (though will be able to live-stream from their auditorium).
What do the new tiers mean?
We'll break it down.
- Tier one areas (medium risk) – Venues will be able to open with social distancing and a new capacity cap (which wasn't in place before) which means spaces can play either to 1000 people or 50 per cent of conventional capacity, whichever is smaller. There is a curfew of 11pm, so shows cannot open after this time, but shows can end after this time. Alcohol can also be served at bars.
- Tier two areas (high risk) – Venues will be able to open with social distancing and a new capacity cap (which wasn't in place before) which means spaces can play either to 1000 people or 50 per cent of conventional capacity, whichever is smaller. There is a curfew of 11pm, so shows cannot open after this time, but shows can end after this time. Alcohol cannot be served at bars, but seated service will be permitted.
- Tier three areas (very high risk) – In a change to previous lockdown settings (when venues were able to open unless ordered not to by local authorities) no theatres can now open. Furthermore, those in these areas are told to avoid travelling out of them – with venue operators such as Delfont offering exchanges and refunds for those with tickets during dates that are, for the time being, definitely affected by tier three. The company also states that those with tickets after 17 December can hold fire and wait to see if the restrictions change. Drive-in shows (as were popular over the summer) will be permitted.
When will we find out what tier our area is in?
The different tiers for different parts of the country will be unveiled on Thursday (time tbc) and we'll be providing up-to-date coverage on all topics from then.
The tier decisions are said to be based on the latest data regarding levels of transmission or the general trend in the infection rate.
Why is this a headache for productions?
First of all, no one knows what tier their venue is in, so for now, it's a bit of a waiting game.
Some venues, including the Sondheim Theatre, have been able to socially distance audiences in a way that brought capacity above the 50 per cent capacity cap that has now been introduced. It will be up to shows to work out how best to accommodate or re-schedule dates – expect more on that over the coming days.
A second, slightly more ominous aspect to all of this is the government's promise that lockdown rules will be re-evaluated every fortnight. If "tier two" areas do see a rise in cases then this may see venues close once again, which could be costly for some areas.
BUT with greater emphasis being placed on testing and (fingers crossed) vaccination schemes, hopefully, things will be moving in the opposite direction.
I have tickets to a show, what should I do?
For now – hold fire. Your venue will know about as much as you do, and is eagerly awaiting news on venues. If capacity restrictions are an issue then your venue will be sorting it as swiftly as they can and contacting you with the necessary next steps. As mentioned, for now it's all a bit of a waiting game.
But haven't theatres spent months and thousands of pounds becoming Covid secure?
Yes. As has been mentioned by a plethora of venue owners, producers and industry leaders, there have been no recorded transmissions inside auditoriums. Major risk mitigation measures have been introduced at major expense to help give audiences a stress-free and safe experience.
That's not even something exclusive to English venues (in a country where the track and trace system is slightly less than top-tier) – South Korean productions of Everybody's Talking About Jamie and The Phantom of the Opera opened to packed houses and didn't record any transmissions. That's the word from a country that has one of the best tracking systems on the planet.
As such, theatres cannot be said to be riskier than gyms, or packed stores full of last-minute Christmas shoppers (all of which are able to reopen).
What is slightly galling is that, while theatres were able to open under old tier three, they now won't be able to – compared to the likes of gyms and leisure centres that could also open under old tier three and will once more be welcoming customers or visitors from December.
As SOLT and UK Theatre chief executive Julian Bird said yesterday – "It is unclear why these new restrictions have been instituted in a sector with no known spread of the virus."