After 11 days in the hospital with COVID-19, the arts leader is feeling physically fine—but worried about the future of the performing arts in Columbus.
Press Southworth, the CEO of the Jazz Arts Group and a longtime leader in the Columbus performing arts scene, is among the lucky. Hospitalized March 30 with COVID-19, he spent two to three days on a ventilator, the coveted but also feared device that mechanically pushes air into the lungs and can save a life—but also can inflict significant damage.
Three days into his stay, an unconscious Southworth pulled out his own ventilator tube and was found to be well enough to continue without it. After 11 days in the hospital, he was released. While it took several weeks to recover, the 72-year-old decorated Vietnam veteran, who believes he contracted the virus from his dentist, says he is doing fine. His wife and colleagues remain well.
Southworth has led the Jazz Arts Group since 2012, is a former executive director of Opera Columbus and served two years as president of the Columbus Cultural Leadership Consortium. He spoke with us recently about his experience as a COVID-19 patient and the effects of the pandemic on the Jazz Arts Group and other arts organizations in Columbus.
Can you describe your illness and how it felt when you were in the throes of it? It all started with a fever. No other symptoms, just a fever. The highest it got, a couple days before I went into the hospital, was 102.5, but it never got that high again. It stayed in the 101.5 range. I was in contact with my general practice doctor, and we talked a couple, three times over the weekend. Then on Monday [March 30], she checked in with me and felt that my breathing was somewhat hampered, and decided that I ought to go into the hospital.
So I went into Riverside [Methodist Hospital]. They checked me in and took a COVID-19 test, but it wasn't until the next day that the results came back positive. I was in the ICU at that point; my first nine days were all in the ICU. At the beginning I was intubated, and [stayed on the ventilator for] the first couple of days—I only have vague memories of it—but at some point, I had either a nightmare or a hallucination where this creature comes at me and has this thing coming out of its mouth, and it goes right down my throat … I ended up ripping the intubation tube out of my throat.
[The anesthesiologist came in to put the ventilator tube back in] but then he looked at the monitor, and said, “No, wait a minute.” And he put this needle in my wrist and when the results came out he said, "We're not doing this tonight. His blood oxygen level’s not weak enough. It’s strong enough.” And from that point on, basically, they treated me with just oxygen support.
I've often thought since then that maybe ripping it out … it wasn't intentional by any means, but it may have turned out to be a good thing.
Can you point to anything that you think contributed to your recovery? Even though I'm 72, I've been a very active person. … As I work in the arts, I'm dealing with young people all the time, and I think that's been helpful. And I had a lot of support. My daughter kept updating everybody on Facebook, and it was incredible the amount of support—a ton of prayers coming my way. That helped me persevere, I think, through all this.
How are you doing today? I'm doing great.
That’s fantastic. On a broader note, what's been the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the Jazz Arts Group? We were actually at the Southern Theatre, about to do one of our concerts, on the Thursday afternoon when the state shut the theaters down. I already had my guest artist in from out of town. We tried to do a web broadcast that weekend, but there was a fear that one of the musicians maybe had been exposed when he was in Europe, so we had to can that, too. So I had an expense, but no income. And then our April concert had to be canceled, too. It was a significant blow. [In addition], our affiliate musicians, which is when we provide musicians for corporate parties, weddings and restaurants—those were all canceled, too. So we lost a significant amount of revenue in this fiscal year.
Our education programs were also affected, but using social media, using Zoom, we were able to continue a lot of the programming. … We're pretty proud of the activity we were able to continue on that side of the business.
And we’ve also come up with some new programs. Every Sunday night, my artistic director [Byron Stripling] has an hourlong program on Facebook and YouTube where he talks to jazz musicians from anywhere in the country about their careers and so forth. Two Sundays ago, we had 7,500 people at least stop in at some point. That's good, but not revenue-generating.
We did qualify for one of the payroll protection plan loans, so we have not had any layoffs or adjustments in terms of our staff. But the people that are really hurt by this are teaching artists, the people that work as our affiliate musicians, and all those artists out there who are what they refer to as the 1099 people. They basically lost their income, so it's a very difficult time for them.
I know you're a member of the Columbus Cultural Leadership Consortium, and you're on the BalletMet board. Are you fearful about the future of the arts in Columbus right now? Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Think about this: Probably the most significant single funder for most of us is the Greater Columbus Arts Council, and they've been terrific and a leader, but where do they get their funding? Principally two sources: the one that was always there, the bed tax, and then more recently the ticket fees. But there's no performances, there's no movies, there's no ticket fee income since probably the middle of March. And then the bed tax, which has been a consistently increasing fund—with occupancy rates down under 10 percent for many of the hotels, their funding is going to be significantly dried up. Another great source is the Ohio Arts Council, which get its funding as part of the state budget. Well, they just had their budget cut.
So yes, it's definitely a scary time—especially as we don't know how soon we're going to be able to start our performances again. Everything’s up in the air.
Are there bright spots or things that are being learned right now? Any new initiative that you think will persist and strengthen the arts groups in the future? Well, again, I would say the performance side is very difficult right now, but I am really thrilled with what we've been able to do from the education side—even, for instance, supporting the Columbus City Schools. My education department put together guides and supporting materials for teachers to help them do their classes. I think we've responded very well and are contributing on that side.
The scary part, again, is more on the performance side. When can we get them back? The Columbus Jazz Orchestra is one of the finest jazz orchestras in the country, probably right there with Jazz at Lincoln Center—but boy, the longer they go without any concerts, the more difficult it will be for them.
You talk about the stage, social distancing the musicians, they have to be 6 feet apart, who has to wear masks? There’s 17 musicians in the jazz orchestra. Then I think of the symphony, with 50 or 60, right? Then with BalletMet, what about the dancers? A lot of people think about this being an issue of the audience. Well, it is, but it's also an issue of the staging.
Is there any other point you would want to make for our readers about this moment in time in the arts? The arts are going to need all the support they can get. I know we're not the only industry that is affected like this. Conceivably, we could be shut down for most of the next year. How do we survive? And then what's this community going to be like without the arts that we have in Columbus? Columbus really does have a very excellent, diverse arts community, but it could get wiped out, and then it would take years to rebuild. So we need all the support we can get.