Better Days: Zach Gill performs on State Street in 2017 | Credit: Brandon Yadegari

A veritable who’s who of Santa Barbara’s performing arts community are rallying their respective troupes and putting pressure on government officials to allow small, socially distanced outdoor shows to resume amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Led by Realtor and guitarist Steve Epstein, the group ― including the heads of the Granada and Lobero theaters, as well as the directors of Opera Santa Barbara and Symphony Santa Barbara ― is asking city leaders to lay out a set of guidelines for modest, busker-style live music along State Street and in other public spaces.

“We all feel we can do this in a safe and sane manner,” said Epstein, citing the ever-mounting financial pressure on artists as the shutdown drags on. “We need to support this important aspect of Santa Barbara’s character. Otherwise, we’re going to lose a lot of great local talent.” So far, Epstein said, he hasn’t gotten much help from city staff, who say the pandemic must completely subside before performances can resume. “Cool,” Epstein said, “then everyone will have moved to L.A.”

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Meanwhile, Opera Santa Barbara leader Kostis Protopapas wonders why many other California communities have resumed outdoor shows. He cited well-publicized events in Ventura, Santa Monica, and the San Francisco Bay Area. “I’m convinced that the ‘no live performance’ order is unique to Santa Barbara, and I want to know why,” he said. When Protopapas presses the city for answers, he said, he’s referred to county health officials, and when he tries talking to them, he’s told they’re only following state rules that forbid public gatherings.

But what about church services or restaurant patios? Protopapas asked. Aren’t those public gatherings? “Our local authorities need to take an official position about what is in their bailiwick, and what isn’t,” he said. “Because right now everyone is just passing the hot potato.”

Jackie Ruiz, a spokesperson for the county’s Public Health Department, said the state has yet to issue any guidance around the resumption of outdoor performances. “The county is allowed to be more restrictive than the state in its permissions, but not less restrictive,” she said. Ruiz also wondered if the shows taking place around the state are actually legal under their counties’ respective health orders.

Mayor Cathy Murillo said she and city staff are following the lead of Public Health, which has stated that any live production in a public space could congregate people too closely and lead to transmission of the virus. Murillo referenced a previous proposal by Protopapas to allow a pair of opera singers to perform from a second-story State Street balcony. “It sounded good,” she said, “but the risk was too great.

“I know these rules are irritating to people, that everyone wants things to go back to normal,” Murillo said. “We are so looking forward to programming State Street, with children’s activities, DJs and dance floors, concerts, portable basketball hoops, and, yes, street musicians. Those things are just not possible right now.”

Epstein insists it is possible with the right safety measures. His group suggested limiting acts to predetermined locations, keeping amplified music to certain levels, and issuing warnings and fines to performers who break the rules. Protopapas recently put forth a separate idea for an opera production at SBCC’s La Playa Stadium. The stadium seats 7,000, he said, but he’d only sell 500 tickets to allow for widely spaced seating. Security would be present, and all health protocols would be strictly followed, he promised. “I’m not asking our officials to go to any extremes,” he said. “Just give us some breathing room, because what we’ve got right now is an industry that is completely shut down while so many others are allowed to operate. I need to go to bat for my people.”

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