Oregon Shakespeare Festival executives are watching news about the swine flu very closely — and are hoping that the virus doesn't cause people to become afraid to visit public places, such as theatres.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival executives are watching news about the swine flu very closely — and are hoping that the virus doesn't cause people to become afraid to visit public places, such as theaters.

"If people are told, 'don't travel somewhere where crowds are gathering,' that could hurt us to the extent of millions of dollars," OSF's Executive Director Paul Nicholson said Monday.

Festival officials are "paying very close attention" to announcements from public officials regarding the swine flu, Nicholson said.

"We're also listening to our audience. If we find if people are calling and canceling their tickets because they're concerned about being in the company of 1,194 other people, then obviously we're going to pay a lot of attention to that," he said.

The Elizabethan Stage, OSF's largest of its three theaters, seats 1,195. Previews for plays in that theater, which is outside, begin June 2.

So far, the swine flu scare appears not to have impacted the festival, as ticket sales are actually above projections, Nicholson said.

However, festival officials continue to be concerned about the virus, because of its potential to "sour" the season, he said.

Widespread disease outbreaks have impacted other theaters in the past. For example, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada, was hit hard by the SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, outbreak in 2003, Nicholson said.

"People from the states would not cross the border," he said.

But because Ashland is in a fairly remote location, far from big cities, some visitors may see the city as a safe place to vacation, Nicholson said.

"You're actually much safer coming to Ashland, Oregon than you are walking down the streets in San Francisco," he said. "Maybe the marketing campaign would be, 'Drive to Ashland for your health.'"

Contact Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.