Opinion: San Diego theaters should copy Stephen Colbert’s COVID-19 policy

Weinberger is a pediatric pulmonologist and a visiting professor of clinical pediatrics at UC San Diego, which is affiliated with Rady Children’s Hospital. He lives in Encinitas.

COVID-19 vaccinations have been alleviating the pandemic in the U.S. However, the disease is increasing in those who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine despite ready availability. The latest statistics for San Diego County COVID-19 vaccination indicate nearly 30 percent of those 12 and over are not fully vaccinated. and just under 20 percent have had at least one dose. Of course, those who are unvaccinated have the right to not be vaccinated if that is their choice.

However, those not vaccinated then have the responsibility to avoid potential exposure to others. That means avoiding environments where those already infected with COVID-19 could infect others. An indoor setting where social distancing cannot be maintained is an environment where the virus can reach concentrations more likely to infect others, even those who have been vaccinated. While immunization prevents serious illness from COVID-19, asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic infection can still occur and potentially be transmitted to others.

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As a theater buff, I have looked forward to once again enjoying the live theater available in San Diego. I have been in contact with four of the live theater venues in San Diego County to determine the measures that will be undertaken to protect the audience. Indoor theaters, by their very nature, are an environment where those attending are in prolonged close proximity to each other with no opportunity to maintain social distancing. Those who are infected with and carrying the virus in that environment are likely to spread the virus to others.

My query to one of the popular theaters in San Diego County resulted in the following email response: “fully vaccinated individuals are not required to wear a mask indoors and individuals who are not fully vaccinated must wear a mask indoors.” The email stated that vaccination status would not be verified; patrons who do not wear a mask would be self-attesting to their status as fully vaccinated. Referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a guide, this was stated to be the practice at most theater venues in San Diego city and county.

Is this plan realistic and safe? Patrons not fully vaccinated will be expected to self-attest and wear a mask. But those who believe that those not vaccinated will reliably self-attest to their deficient status are naive, gullible or intentionally denying human behavior. This quote from county Supervisor Nathan Fletcher expresses the reality: “I think one of the challenges with this is that individuals who are choosing to not get vaccinated are the same individuals who are going to choose to not wear a mask.” A May column in The Washington Post by health expert Leana S. Wen illustrated another issue: There might be little incentive for people to be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they have to keep wearing masks. More realistically, what would be the motivation to self-assess that they were not vaccinated? It would be easier to just not wear a mask like those who are vaccinated.

The responsible solution is demonstrated by the common-sense position taken by Stephen Colbert, the satirical late-night comedian. When his show, after 15 months, returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater with a full live audience, he stated on air that tickets would only be given to those immunized against the virus that causes COVID-19. Indoor theaters in San Diego County should do no less. The individual personal good and the public health and community benefit of establishing that same practice would be the most effective and comfortable policy for theater-goers. Moreover, that policy could provide encouragement for those not fully immunized to get with the program.

Those who choose to not get the vaccine have that right! But those operating indoor venues where patrons are in close proximity for an extended period have the responsibility to provide a safe environment for their clientele. And theater patrons have the right to expect no less than an environment where exposure to COVID-19, especially this new highly contagious coronavirus delta variant, is minimized by requiring immunization for entry. The only rational practice then would be to require evidence of immunization in order to participate in indoor environments where people are in close proximity for an extended period.