- - Tuesday, March 22, 2022

A few times a year, my wife and I enjoy seeing the Philadelphia Orchestra, one of the finest orchestras in the world. But unfortunately, not this year. At least not yet.

Is it because we’re concerned about attending a crowded public event? It’s quite the opposite. For most of the past 12 months, we’ve been traveling, eating indoors at restaurants, attending sporting events and going to family functions. We’re both vaccinated and boosted. We’re both relatively healthy. We have no risk factors. We’re being careful. But we’re also living our lives.

However, when I went to purchase tickets for an all-Beethoven concert by the orchestra planned for later this month, I was directed to their “COVID safety policy.” Apparently, not only would we have to show proof that we were vaccinated, but we would also have to wear a mask during the entire duration of the three-hour performance. I chose not to buy. Just because Beethoven was deaf doesn’t mean I have to be dumb.

And that’s a shame. Because we all know this hasn’t been a great past couple of years for the orchestra or any business in the arts industry. According to the organization’s tax returns, total revenues in its fiscal year ending August 2020 (the latest year made available) fell from $99 million the previous year to about $42 million. I’m certain — even with federal help — that when the organization releases its most recent fiscal year’s financial the results won’t be that much more encouraging. Let’s face it, like most arts organizations, the Philadelphia Orchestra mightily suffered during the pandemic.

But there’s good news: The pandemic is waning! COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia are barely on the radar anymore. The city is highly vaccinated. Things are getting back to normal. Even our left-leaning, COVID-hysterical mayor, has acquiesced to this reality and, finally, removed the city’s vaccine and mask mandates that have been crippling its small businesses for months.

And yet, astonishingly, the orchestra is still making its visitors not only prove that they’re vaccinated … but also wear masks inside their facility and during their performances. That, to me, is a nonstarter, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one that feels the same way. Or that the orchestra is the only arts organization making these dubious business decisions. It turns out I’m not.

“I was so excited to see a performance of ‘Prayer for the French Republic’ at New York City Center with a group of girlfriends that I never checked the theater’s website for its COVID policies,” writes New York-based Rebecca Sugar in The Wall Street Journal. “Had I looked, I would have known that there was still a mask mandate in place, and I wouldn’t have bought a ticket.”

Ms. Sugar’s comments aside, I informally polled a handful of friends and came away with similar opinions: Given a choice between wearing a sweaty mask for three hours listening to Beethoven or watching the Flyers lose again at the Wells Fargo Center (where masks are no longer required) all would prefer to watch our team lose. Being a Philadelphian, we’re pretty used to that anyway. 

You can argue that the orchestra attracts an older demographic, so making everyone wear a mask is for their safety. But when the CDC has already advised that masks aren’t necessary and 99% of the people are only wearing ineffective cloth masks, is this really making a difference? And if the people at risk are wearing a mask and they’re vaccinated, aren’t they as safe as they can be? Should they even be attending a public event if they’re so concerned with their health? Maybe — at least during these “risky” times — watching one of the many online performances the orchestra makes available to its fans would be a “safer” choice for them? Am I being selfish? Or are they?

I’m baffled by what exactly is going through the minds of the leadership team at the Philadelphia Orchestra. This is a business — a business that is in dire need of revenues. And yet it’s turning away paying customers.

A spokesperson for the organization informed me by email, “While we do take the recommendations of the CDC as well as the local health authorities into account when making our policies; we do also consider the guests that have reached out to our Patron Services department expressing their encouragement of our vaccination and masking requirements as well as our guests that are uncomfortable with our current policy.”

I wonder how many “guests” have “reached out.” We’ll never know. But hey — it’s politically correct and woke to show just how much you “care” about the health and safety of your patrons, right? Does it matter that you have a business to run? Apparently not. Meanwhile, the orchestra, in its ill-advised attempts to protect the health of a tiny number of customers, is turning away countless others at a time when no organization in the arts business should be rejecting revenues.

The good news? According to the orchestra’s spokesperson, their policies are up for another review at the end of this month. For the orchestra’s employees, talented artists and all others who rely on its survival, let’s hope their management team makes the right business decision and removes these over-the-top rules that keep fans like me away.

• Gene Marks is a CPA and owner of The Marks Group, a technology and financial management consulting firm specializing in small- and medium-sized companies.

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