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Friday, Sep 29, 2023

Town institutions adjust to Omicron

Vermont Covid-19 cases have dramatically climbed as the Omicron wave of the pandemic has surged through both the state and the country. On Jan. 14, Vermont reported 2,137 new cases, more than an 11-fold increase from last January's peak of 205 cases. Though the town of Middlebury does not have an indoor mask mandate, town organizations and the college have made changes to their operating procedures in light of recent case numbers. 

The Town Hall Theater instituted a number of new Covid-19 policies this January. These include proof of full vaccination — defined by the theater as two doses and a booster, or two doses if less than six months have passed  since the second dose — or a negative PCR test within 72 hours. The theater does not accept negative antigen tests. They also require masks at all times and a valid photo ID for patrons 18 years of age or older.

Executive Director Lisa Mitchell told The Campus that the theater requires photo ID because “requiring ID proof with vaccination status is the most thorough way to verify patrons.” Mitchell said that in doing so, the theater was following best practices and guidance from health providers.

“Most antigen tests sold in drug stores show a result, but not a time stamp, and are self-administered. The question of how to consistently show proof of a negative antigen result is really the question,” Mitchell said.

However, if antigen testing showed more definitive proof of Covid-19 negativity, and local health officials supported it, she said the theater would consider changing its requirements.

Another community institution in Middlebury, The Ilsley Public Library,  has also recently begun requiring masks indoors.

“During the time that Delta was spreading (starting in summer 2021) the library was able to keep windows open, ensuring better ventilation.” Library Director Dana Hart wrote to The Campus. The timing of the Omicron variant prompted the library to require masks due to the “higher case count, less ventilation, and [a] more contagious strain of the virus,” Hart said

Though case counts are significantly higher this winter than last, Hart said that operations were disrupted more last year.

“At that point in time, vaccines were not widely available, and so we closed the building to the public,” she said.

Both this winter and last winter, Ilsley has implemented an outdoor pick-up option for library materials. Last winter it was the only way for patrons to borrow materials, while this year it is an option for individuals who do not feel comfortable entering the building.

Since it was last open to live audiences in December, the Town Hall Theater has improved its air quality and filtration systems. Mitchell said they received pandemic relief funding through grants from the Vermont Arts Council and the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which was used in part to upgrade filtration.

The theater has also hired additional staff to assist the additional prevention measures. These employees will check attendees IDs and vaccination status prior to performances, Mitchell told The Campus. The theater’s existing staff was too small to handle the extra tasks, she explained.

Hart said that Ilsley Library has also experienced some staffing challenges as a result of the Omicron wave. 

“If a staff member comes into close contact with someone that tests positive for Covid, they must obtain a negative test before returning to work. Consequently, we have had several staff staying home sick while they wait for test results,” she said.

Hart noted that the Omicron wave has not impacted library visitation any more than other phases of the pandemic. Visitation remains steadily about 50% lower than pre-pandemic levels, she said

Mitchell said the town theater has also seen fewer visitors due to the pandemic. 

“Since reopening, ticket sales have been unsteady,” she said. The theater initially closed in spring of 2020 at the start of the pandemic. 

“It's challenging. But we made a choice to operate, rather than shut down indefinitely. We think the arts are important to this community, and we have worked hard to offer a wide range of offerings,” Mitchell said.

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Things appear to be looking up, though, as the J-Term musical “Company” has tickets on sale now. “Tickets are going fast. Not as fast as pre-Covid, but solid numbers for the time,” Mitchell added.