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The Numbers Game

George Petersen • Editor's NoteMay 2020 • May 8, 2020


For some reasons (maybe a lot of reasons), spring seemed to arrive late this year. However, that old adage “April showers bring May flowers” seemed to ring true at my house, where a colossal Cecile Bruner rose “bush” (it’s more than 20 feet tall) now has about 500 blooms. Spring traditionally marks a return to normalcy, and a month ago, the container docks at the Port of Oakland — a major destination for cargo ships coming from Asia — looked empty, almost abandoned. Two weeks ago, I noticed container ship traffic there had picked up substantially, and while hardly at peak levels, it seems to be increasing every day.

After an absence of a few months, traffic at west coast  container ports is returning...

A good sign: After an absence of a few months, traffic at west coast container ports is returning…

Lately, especially as the weather improves, people are anxious to break out of their shelter-in-place hibernation and resume “normal” (remember that?) life. Among the first states to give the “okay” to the resumption of public events — movie theaters, concerts, funerals, weddings, school graduations — was Missouri, where governor Mike Parson’s “Show Me Strong” recovery plan (as of May 4, 2020) allows for those and some other activities, including shopping and dine-in restaurant services. Yet there are a few caveats here, including suggestions that businesses will sanitize public and work areas, residents should practice good hygiene and “seating shall be spaced out according to social distancing requirements.”

Obviously, the latter would preclude standing-room-only thrash clubs with mosh pits, but who exactly determines proper social distancing seating in a movie theater? The patrons? The staff? Now this could more easily determined in assigned-seating situations, such as live theater or sports venues. However, this comes at a major reduction in audience capacity. Consider Fig. 1, showing the projected layout in a “typical” small-medium venue, with eight rows in the front orchestra section and 10 additional rows in the rear area, for a total of 426 seats.

Fig. 1: Two variations on socially distanced seating in a small-medium venue.

So far, so good, but in a fully-spread configuration based on single attendees, say for events like college lectures, this 426-seater only accommodates 56, as shown in the “red” theater. However, in many performances (live theater or concerts), people frequently attend either as couples or families, with fewer single attendees. So in the example of the “brown” theater, that same 426-capacity venue in this socially-distanced case increases to 105 seats, with three singles, 21 couples, 12 trios and six quads. This definitely creates complications — it’s a numbers game and the box office manager has to be a whiz at Tetris to maximize capacity. Another issue is figuring out how to maintain distancing during an intermission or at the end of the show when the fight-or-flight response kicks in and everyone feels the primal urge to be the first out the exit doors. Or socially distancing when a packed house are all trying to use the restrooms at the same time? Fahgettaboudit!

The return to normalcy will be a gradual and (hopefully) safe transition, but it will take time, a difficult task when patience wears thin. But it will happen and we all have to weather the storm in the meantime. Speaking of that, more music artists, theaters, comedians and churches (an interesting combination) have turned to streaming events to virtual audiences. And by now, as you may have noticed from this month’s non-traditional FRONT of HOUSE cover, we visit one such event, this one featuring Harry James Orchestra vocalist Barbara Rosene with noted pianist Rock Wehrmann. Check it out here:

Assuming there’s a bright side to the pandemic (okay, I admit that’s a stretch), the shuttering of schools, venues and sports facilities at least provides opportunities for contractors to access these spaces to install upgrades in preparation for their eventual re-openings. We report on a number of these in this issue. And looking ahead can be a good thing.

Stay safe!

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