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Wayne Journell: Tanger Center should enforce its own rules

Wayne Journell: Tanger Center should enforce its own rules

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Last Saturday, Oct. 9, my wife, my 8-year-old daughter and I attended the matinee performance of “Wicked” at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts. It was our first time at the Tanger Center, and in terms of the venue itself, we were quite impressed. The theater is beautiful — not a bad seat in the house — and the performance was outstanding. Being able to attend Broadway-quality shows this close to home is something that we should not take for granted, and it is easy to see how the cultural opportunities afforded by the Tanger Center will be well worth the money spent by the city.

Yet, we likely will not be attending future shows at the Tanger Center anytime soon. Although my wife and I are both fully vaccinated against COVID, my daughter has not yet had the opportunity to be. Throughout the pandemic, we have gone to great lengths to protect her from COVID — avoiding crowded events, dining outdoors at restaurants and consistently wearing masks. In light of this, our theater experience was diminished when a family took their seats right in front of us not wearing masks in clear defiance of Tanger Center policy and the Guilford County indoor mask mandate.

My wife and I purchased our tickets during that brief COVID respite over the summer — when cases were rapidly declining, and it appeared that the end of the pandemic was finally in sight. Of course, the delta variant altered the trajectory of the pandemic, and in the weeks leading up to “Wicked,” we vacillated as to whether we should still attend. Putting our daughter in a packed, 3,000-person-capacity theater was not appealing, but the tickets were expensive, and we knew she would enjoy the show.

In making our decision, we scoured the Tanger Center website and were comforted by the protocols that were in place. Although we would have preferred proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test as a requirement for admission, we were encouraged by the “no food or drink in the theater” policy, as well as a high-tech air filtration system that recently had been installed.

But it was their mask policy that sealed the deal for us. We reasoned that if everyone in the theater was wearing a mask, then it would be a calculated risk that we were willing to take.

A policy, however, is only as good as its enforcement. I should note that the vast majority of patrons (more than 90%, I’d guess) at our show were compliant and wearing their masks. The family in front of us, however, clearly did not believe the rules applied to them.

Approximately 10 minutes before showtime, my wife discreetly relayed our concern to an usher. The usher politely approached the family and reminded them of the mask policy, which by that time also had been announced through the theater loudspeakers. The members of the family pretended to rummage through their belongings for their masks, but as soon as the usher left, all masks were removed.

At that point, the lights dimmed, and the play started. Approximately five minutes into the show, a different usher walked by and noticed the maskless family. He attempted to gain their attention, but the family either did not see him or purposefully ignored him. At that point, the usher gave up. He walked to the front of the theater and never returned. The family remained maskless for the remainder of the performance.

Dealing with rude patrons, unfortunately, is too often part of attending live performances. Most of us have experienced people talking too loudly to friends or playing on a cellphone in a darkened theater. It is unfair to blame a venue for people’s obnoxious behavior, and even if a venue is vigilant, its staff are unlikely to catch every offender.

My frustration comes from the fact that members of the Tanger Center staff were fully aware that this family was breaking policy, yet nothing was done about it. It is certainly possible that trying to enforce the mask policy could have led to an ugly confrontation and possibly disrupted the show, which would have been a shame. However, when it comes to an issue of public safety, particularly during a show that welcomes children — the recommended age for “Wicked” is 8 and above — I believe such a risk is warranted.

My wife and I likely were not the only ones who chose to attend “Wicked” because of the promise of a mask mandate (anecdotally, I can attest that the two older patrons sitting beside me also were concerned about the family in question). For those of us in that situation, the Tanger Center let us down. That family should have been made to don masks or been asked to leave the theater.

Moving forward, I hope that the Tanger Center chooses to enforce its policies more strictly. Even better, it could follow the lead of the Durham Performing Arts Center and require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test as a condition of admission.

Would taking such a stance pose challenges? Possibly. But doing what is right is not always easy — which just so happens to be one of the takeaways from “Wicked.”


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