LENOX — Kudos to the Tri-Town Health Department’s Stockbridge and Lenox health boards for asserting their “home rule” independence by modifying Gov. Charlie Baker’s surprise decision to fully open the state’s businesses and large-capacity outdoor venues like Fenway Park to 100 percent capacity, starting Saturday.
As state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, declared this week, he and many others were blindsided by the governor’s abrupt turnabout May 17, three weeks after announcing that a 25 percent attendance cap for the large outdoor stadiums, arenas and concert sites like Tanglewood would hold until Aug. 1.
How to account for the abrupt fast-tracking to 100 percent? There’s speculation that Baker came under strong pressure from the owners of Fenway Park and the Boston Red Sox to allow a full stadium for baseball, and for an expanding schedule of rock and pop concerts on dates when the team is playing out of town.
We may never know for sure, but the abandonment of restrictions on large outdoor events looks premature at best, and potentially irresponsible, until the COVID-19 pandemic is officially declared under control.
The governor’s team has already pointed out that local communities and health boards can override the statewide guidance, which they now call a recommendation, in favor of a more cautious reopening of sports and entertainment destinations that attract large crowds of visitors as well as nearby residents.
While it’s encouraging that 50 percent of our population statewide and nationally is fully vaccinated, there are still vaccine hesitaters and resisters, as well as young people who have yet to be inoculated and those younger than 12 not yet eligible for jabs.
It’s regrettable that vaccine “passports” either on paper or electronically have not caught on nationally, except in New York state and a few other places.
If Tanglewood, Fenway Park and other major sites could require patrons to prove they’ve been vaccinated, there would be no need to impose limits.
Of course, some fans would resist any restrictions, as we’ve seen on airlines where hapless flight attendants have had to cope with unruly customers who insist they don’t have to remain masked, even though that’s required under federal regulations, and wisely so.
Some people won’t feel comfortable in a large crowd this summer, whether it’s 9,000, 18,000 or more. Tanglewood’s capacity is 18,000, as required by a Stockbridge bylaw.
That regulation was passed after a crowd of 26,000 fans attended a James Taylor performance in 2002 — many of them crashing the party without tickets, causing chaos on roadways before and after the show — and then nearly 20,000 showed up for his 60th birthday bash on July 4, 2008, with Yo-Yo Ma, John Travolta, Carole King and Paul McCartney (via video) among the celebrants.
But, the 50 percent limit allowing 9,000 ticket holders — expected to receive final approval by the Stockbridge and Lenox health boards after a public hearing this Thursday — is reasonable, and already has been welcomed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It’s expected that they will be able to sell many more tickets beyond the 4,500 (25 percent) capacity restriction imposed by the state until Baker switched into high gear.
A typical Boston Symphony concert attracts 5,000 to 7,000 listeners, as Pignatelli pointed out.
In 2019, when total Tanglewood attendance reached 344,000, only seven events topped the 9,000 mark — Taylor (twice, at 18,000), John Williams’ Film Night, a Ma all-Bach recital, pop performers Train and Earth Wind & Fire, and a film with live-music concert, “Star Wars,” performed by the Boston Pops led by Keith Lockhart.
Attending a concert or a sports event is not an entitlement, but a discretionary activity where public safety and well-being must be protected. We’re not yet back to normal — new or old. Rather than a full-throttle reopening, tapping the brakes is the wise move and deserves the support of residents as well as visitors who come to the Berkshires for a respite rather than a replication of their overcrowded urban environments.