Broadway audiences will need proof of vaccination and masks

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Broadway audiences will need proof of vaccination and masks
In this file photo taken on May 6, 2021, People walk past a closed Broadway theatre in New York City. Broadway will require audiences to be fully vaccinated and wear masks at all shows, New York's theatre industry announced on July 30, 2021, as the US steps up mandatory vaccinations. Angela Weiss / AFP.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Broadway’s theater owners and operators, citing the ongoing dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, said Friday that they have decided to require that theatergoers be vaccinated against COVID-19 and wear masks in order to attend performances.

The policy, announced just days before the first Broadway play in more than 16 months is to start performances, allows children ineligible for vaccination to attend shows if tested for the virus. Some performing arts venues in New York say they will go even further: The Metropolitan Opera, which hopes to reopen in late September, and Carnegie Hall, which is planning to reopen in October, are planning not only to require vaccinations but also to bar children younger than 12 who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

The new vaccination requirements for visitors to New York’s most prominent performing arts venues were imposed as the highly contagious delta variant has caused COVID-19 cases to rise, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to recommend that vaccinated Americans in virus hot spots resume wearing masks indoors. Several major businesses, local governments and the federal government have recently decided to require their employees to get vaccinated or submit to frequent testing.

The safety protocols come at a fraught time for Broadway, which is attempting to rebound after the longest shutdown in its history. Because tourism, which traditionally accounts for about two-thirds of the Broadway audience, remains down, it was already unclear whether there would be sufficient demand to support the 45 shows that plan to start performances on Broadway this season. Now the industry is hoping that there will be more people comforted than put off by the vaccination and masking measures.

“We have said from day one that we want our casts, our crews and our audiences to be safe, and we believe that this is a precaution to ensure that,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League. “We’re doing everything we can to open safely and protect everyone.”

The rules, which will be in place at least through October, apply to all 41 Broadway theaters and require that audiences wear masks, except when eating or drinking in designated areas.

The Broadway vaccination mandate will apply not only to audiences but also to performers, backstage crew and theater staff. There will be limited exceptions: “people with a medical condition or closely held religious belief that prevents vaccination,” as well as children younger than 12, can attend with proof of a recent negative coronavirus test.

A vaccine mandate is already in place for Bruce Springsteen’s concert show, which began performances in June, and for “Pass Over,” the play that aims to start performances Aug. 4. The latest rules will mean that they will now require masks as well, and will govern all of the shows that follow; 27, including many of the blockbuster musicals, intend to get underway in September and October, starting with “Hadestown” and “Waitress” Sept. 2, followed by “Chicago,” “Hamilton,” “The Lion King,” “Wicked” and the play “Lackawanna Blues” Sept. 14.

“I am overjoyed that the theater owners and the Broadway League have made the decision that is best for the community at large,” said Brian Moreland, lead producer of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” a play that is to start performances in October. “We committed to doing what the science told us to do, and this is what the science tells us.”

Deciding what to do about young children has proved particularly vexing, given that no vaccine has yet been approved for pediatric use. Although Broadway, which has a number of shows that depend on ticket buying by families with children, has decided to allow those younger than 12 to attend if tested, the Met Opera, which draws fewer young children to most of its productions, is taking a more restrictive approach.

“Children under the age of 12, for whom there is no currently available vaccine, are not permitted to enter the Met regardless of the vaccination status of their guardian,” the company declares on its website.

“Obviously, it’s painful to me personally and to the company not to have young people coming into the theater,” said Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, who said that the company’s vaccination policies were designed to protect its roughly 3,000 employees and to make audiences feel comfortable about coming back and sitting in close quarters. The Met is also requiring all visiting artists and the members of its orchestra and chorus, as well as its staff, to be vaccinated.

Barring children younger than 12 for now had been a difficult decision, Gelb said: “They are our future audience.”

Gelb said that he hoped children would become eligible for vaccines by December, when the Met has two holiday presentations aimed at families and children: the company’s shortened, English-language version of “The Magic Flute,” and “Cinderella,” an English-language adaptation of Massenet’s “Cendrillon.”

Both Broadway and the Met say they will open at full capacity, meaning no social distancing. The Met, unlike Broadway, says that masks will be optional. Broadway theaters range in size from 600-1,900 seats, while the Met can seat 3,800.

Broadway will provide additional safety measures backstage. An agreement announced Thursday between the Broadway League, a trade association representing producers as well as theater owners, and Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union representing performers and stage managers, requires weekly testing for employees, as well as the vaccine mandate.

There are some venues staging work in New York without requiring vaccinations, but others have implemented mandates, including Madison Square Garden, which in June required vaccination for patrons at a Foo Fighters concert. The Park Avenue Armory, which had accepted proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for its first dance show this summer, has been getting stricter; all attendees must be fully vaccinated for its next show, a work by choreographer Bill T. Jones called “Deep Blue Sea” that is scheduled to start performances in September.

There are also performing arts vaccine mandates emerging beyond New York. The San Francisco Opera announced Wednesday that it will require proof of vaccination for all patrons ages 12 and older, and Friday, the Hollywood Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, where a tour of “Hamilton” is set to begin Aug. 17, said it would require ticket holders to be fully vaccinated.

Broadway theaters are especially high-visibility and especially challenging since they draw audiences of all ages and from all over to sit side by side in tightly packed buildings with small lobbies and bathrooms and cramped backstage areas. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York had suggested in May that Broadway should consider a vaccination mandate, but some producers were worried that such a step could dampen attendance at a time when consumer readiness to return to theatergoing remains uncertain. The recent rise in cases persuaded the industry’s leadership to set aside those concerns and embrace the vaccination mandate, at least for the next few months.

The details of how the new Broadway policies will be implemented are up to individual theater owners and are still being worked out, but ticket holders will be expected to present proof of vaccination when they arrive at a theater. Among the forms of proof that have been accepted at “Springsteen on Broadway” are vaccination cards; images of those cards stored on a phone; and, for New York residents and others vaccinated in New York, the state’s Excelsior Pass.

For those who have already purchased tickets and are unwilling or unable to comply with the new policies, there are likely to be options: Most shows have adopted liberal refund and exchange policies for the fall.

The League said that in September it would reassess safety protocols for performances in November and beyond.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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