COVID-19: Museums and movie theaters are reopening. Why now?

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Cultural organizations are among the business sectors that have been given the green light to reopen in Los Angeles this week. Museums will at long last be allowed to welcome back art lovers, who have missed basking in the presence of venerated masterpieces and avant-garde vision.

Walter Benjamin didn’t need to spend a year looking at pictures on the internet to conclude, in his watershed 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that the “aura” of a visual work “withers” when technologically copied, a process that “detaches the reproduced object from the domain of tradition.” I’m pretty sure I’ll shed tears of gratitude the next time I’m standing before a Turner or Monet, but I doubt I’ll be roaming the galleries of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art before the summer.

I’m taking my cues from the health experts, who are preaching a different message from state, city and municipal officials. While COVID-19 new infections, hospitalizations and deaths have been dramatically declining since the post-holiday surges, the number of new cases has plateaued at a still worrisome level.

Despite the great progress that has been made on the vaccination front, we’re not out of the woods yet. Doctors and epidemiologists have been stressing that the next two months is a critical period in the race between vaccines and new variants, which have already sent parts of Europe into lockdown again.

The push to restart the economy is completely understandable given the extent of the economic pain. It would make no sense that indoor dining and gyms could resume but not museums, where social distancing can be more easily accommodated. In New York, cultural institutions welcomed back patrons at limited capacity at the end of August, suggesting that it’s possible to take this step without fanning the flames of new infections.

But how are civilians who want to be responsible citizens expected to make sense of the mixed messages? On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical advisor, said the country is moving in the right direction but he urged caution against declaring premature victory.

“If you’re going for a touchdown, don’t spike the ball on the five-yard line,” Fauci explained in terms football-loving Chuck Todd would understand. “Wait until you get into the end zone. And we’re not in the end zone yet.”

Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota, one of the nation’s leading experts on the COVID-19 pandemic, put the matter more gravely a week earlier on “Meet the Press”: “We are in the eye of the hurricane right now. It appears that things are going very well. You can see blue skies. We’ve been through a terrible, terrible year. But what we know is about to come upon us is the situation with this B117 variant, a virus that originated in the United Kingdom that today is wreaking havoc in parts of Europe.”

Epidemiology wasn’t in the curriculum at my drama school. I’m not qualified to have an opinion on the best way to move forward. What feels premature to me, someone who survived an earlier plague, may seem belated to others. I have no desire to dictate my public health morality to others.

But cultural institutions must proceed with more candor and communal concern than retail businesses, which have one priority: their bottom line. Museums and performing arts venues are also centers of education. I’m glad that many have decided to take their time and do this right. Trust is on the line.

Movie theaters in L.A. also are set to reopen, which means that more of us will once again be able to experience a film without hitting the remote control every few minutes for a snack or a peek at our phones. But my ears pricked up when surgeon and New Yorker staff writer Atul Gawande, on a recent episode of Preet Bharara’s podcast “Stay Tuned With Preet,” said that though he’s fully vaccinated, don’t expect to see him munching popcorn at a cineplex.

It’s not that he doesn’t have faith in the vaccines’ ability to prevent hospitalization and death. But being vaccinated, he explained, doesn’t prevent asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic infection. He’s not worried about the sniffles; he’s concerned about protecting those who are not yet immunized.

Gawande also said that the more we allow COVID-19 to circulate, the more likely it is that the virus will develop mutations that make it resistant to vaccines. “I have many reasons to be very leery about going into that movie theater right now,” he concluded.

President Trump set up a false opposition between the economy and public health safety, needlessly politicizing the pandemic and recklessly conscripting masks into his culture wars. But President Biden trusted the American people with the truth in his first prime-time address to the nation on Thursday: “The only way to get our lives back, to get our economy back on track, is to beat the virus.”

Patience isn’t easy right now. Believe me, I know. The finish line may be in sight but this last stretch of the marathon feels like an eternity. I miss my friends, I miss my freedom, I miss the companionship of art. A few more hours on Zoom and I may lose my mind. But we can’t afford to get this wrong.

So ArcLight and the Hammer, I can’t wait to be reunited. But after not seeing you for more than a year, I can wait a couple of more months. Taking it slowly seems prudent given all the unknowns.

Biden proposed July 4 as a time when family and friends should be able to celebrate together. I’m shooting for the Fountain Theatre’s outdoor production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon,” tentatively set for June. By then most of us should be fully vaccinated. I’ll be the middle-aged guy shielding his face with his program to hide his stray tears.




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