Capacity at Tanglewood this summer could be doubled from its current cap of 4,500, under new regulations being considered by the Tri-Town Health Department, which includes Stockbridge and Lenox.
But, even at the expanded limit, the venue would remain half-empty, despite the state's plan to allow venues to operate at full capacity beginning Saturday.
Flashing a cautionary yellow light as the state is poised to lift most COVID-19 restrictions, the Lenox and Stockbridge boards of health, both Tri-Town members, are proposing to limit large outdoor events in the two towns to 9,000 ticket holders.
That gives the Boston Symphony Orchestra an opportunity to sell another 4,500 tickets for each concert — in the Shed and on the lawn — for this summer's festival if it chooses. Some high-profile performances, such as those featuring Yo-Yo Ma and John Williams, were sold out because of the previous capacity limits.
Tanglewood, which mostly is in Stockbridge, except for a sliver off West Street in Lenox, has a crowd limit of 18,000, which rarely is reached, except for James Taylor’s annual shows. Taylor’s summer performance tentatively is set for Aug. 31, but it’s not known whether any additional tickets will be made available since an estimated 15,000 already are held by purchasers for his July 4, 2020, appearance, which was postponed.
The Tri-Town Health order would be in effect until Sept. 1, overriding any state-issued orders or guidance, according to a draft of the regulation that will be issued as a public notice Friday. A public hearing on the order is scheduled via Zoom at 9:30 a.m. June 3. The regulation is expected to go into effect immediately thereafter.
“The Boston Symphony Orchestra is grateful for the proposed new regulations from the Stockbridge/Lenox Boards of Health, and the new allowance for a capacity limit of 9,000,” a BSO spokesperson stated. “We will await the results of the public hearing on Thursday, June 3, and final recommendations from the Tri Town Health Department before issuing a plan on Friday, June 4, updating our previously announced protocols.”
At back-to-back remote public meetings Wednesday led by Tri-Town Health Executive Director James Wilusz, health board members stressed the need for large-gathering limits as the COVID-19 pandemic winds down.
“Although the governor is lifting orders, boards of health still reserve the home-rule right to enact local measures due to COVID,” he said. Until Saturday, the state had limited large-event attendance to 25 percent of capacity.
“There are some concerns still; COVID’s not going away, contrary to what many believe with the restrictions being lifted this weekend,” Wilusz said.
“People are very concerned about opening up the floodgates,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli. The Lenox Democrat, who attended both remote meetings, praised Wilusz and the health boards during the pandemic.
Pignatelli suggested that many theater, restaurant and other business owners had been geared for an Aug. 1 full reopening, as Gov. Charlie Baker had targeted in late April, until he switched gears with his surprise announcement May 17 fast-tracking the lifting of restrictions for May 29.
“We were all caught with our guard down; we were thrown a curveball,” Pignatelli said. “I don’t think the towns themselves are prepared from a public health standpoint, and there are some concerns about public safety.” He cited his talk with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito confirming that “there’s nothing to prevent a municipality or a board of health from making further restrictions.”
“This might be one time when we say, ‘Timeout, maybe we’re doing this a little too fast,’ ” Pignatelli said, based on his conversations with business owners and others.
“The Berkshires are a destination for two huge metropolitan areas, New York and Boston,” Dianne Romeo, who chairs the Lenox Board of Health, pointed out. “So, we don’t know how many thousands of people may decide that this is the year to stay a little closer to home.” The problem she pinpointed is that it isn’t possible to know which visitors are vaccinated or unvaccinated.
“I don’t know if I trust the honor system as much as I care to anymore,” Romeo said. “I don’t know how many people will come into our town and may or may not affect our own residents’ safety. I worry about our own people and our own town.”
Citing some locals who might not be able to be vaccinated for medical or age reasons, she cautioned that opening up to “something like 12,000 or 15,000 people, short term with a quick turnaround but a lot of exposure,” would make it difficult for Tri-Town to deal with any outbreak.
Dr. Noel Blagg, a newly elected Lenox Board of Health member and former infectious-disease physician, also voiced caution about visitors potentially spreading the disease to others.
“One has to be concerned,” he said, pointing to emerging variants of “a virus that knows new tricks. I think a cautious approach is really appropriate.”
Wilusz pointed to a pre-pandemic Stockbridge bylaw limiting any large event to 18,000 people. The draft regulation he presented to the Lenox and Stockbridge health boards was drafted with town counsels of both communities, he noted.
According to Dr. Charles Kenny, chairman of the Stockbridge Board of Health, “there’s really very little reason to have restrictions for vaccinated people, they are pretty well protected from the disease, but unvaccinated people are very vulnerable and are showing a continually increasing vulnerability.”
Lifting all restrictions, he suggested, would impose a burden on Tri-Town and other communities if unvaccinated people fall ill and cases require tracing.
“It would cripple the department; we wouldn’t be able to respond to that,” Wilusz agreed.
Thus, Kenny recommended an increase in crowd size this summer to a manageable level for Tri-Town, in line with Wilusz’s draft regulation limiting large outdoor-capacity events to 9,000 people, not including staff, until Sept 1.
“Going from 25 percent to 100 percent, from first gear to fifth gear — overnight — is a concern,” Wilusz said.
Joining the Stockbridge meeting, Pignatelli suggested that “Tanglewood would be very supportive of your initiative here. I don’t think you’re going to have any backlash whatsoever.”