Bruce Springsteen is coming back to Broadway June 26, more than two dozen shows have announced starting dates, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has lifted most virus restrictions. But many people don’t feel safe, and confusing announcements from the Centers for Disease Control, health experts and the governor aren’t helping.
The CDC says people fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can skip the masks. Cuomo has lifted virtually all coronavirus restrictions for restaurants and other industries. But Broadway safety guidelines haven’t yet been announced.
Overall, New York has an impressive vaccination rate, but significant areas of the city are lagging. At the same time, if the city, state or federal government mandated shots, there might be an uproar from anti-vaxxers.
Reports are that owners of the 41 Broadway theaters have upgraded their ventilation systems and brought their houses into current protocol compliance. Is there a way to verify that for the public?
Broadway industry leaders aren’t saying whether you will have to prove vaccination, which leaves audiences in the dark before the shows start. It appears that the three main Broadway theater owners — Shubert, Jujamcyn, and Nederlander — will have to decide whether particular cast, crew and audience members have to be vaccinated.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has said companies can require vaccination from their employees, but there is a list of legal considerations, including religious and health exceptions. What guarantee is there that everyone has been vaccinated, including the ushers, staff and those onstage and backstage? If theaters require audiences to be vaccinated, what guarantee is there that proof documents won’t be faked?
Theaters are notoriously crowded, and plans are for opening at full capacity, with no social distancing. As of this writing, producers and theater owners have not come to agreements with the 14 Broadway unions, though they have agreed on health protocols for touring shows. Even if all the producers and union members are comfortable, nobody knows whether there will be enough audience members willing to sit, masked or unmasked, close to strangers.
Will there be another COVID spike in New York? Some health experts say that the fuller re-openings may make the unvaccinated complacent and pave the way for another virus surge.
"Hamilton," "The Lion King" and "Wicked" have announced September 14 as their opening nights. Other major productions are planning to raise their curtains sooner. Some fans are ready. Others are not.
Broadway’s planned reopening is exciting and scary. Theater lovers desperately want the upcoming productions to succeed, but steps need to be taken to help them feel secure enough to buy tickets and see the shows.
The messaging emphasis needs to change. The risks need to be put in perspective. Now that so many have been vaccinated, the slower rate of inoculation is to be expected. There needs to be more positivity about the continuing climb in the number of those protected, and ongoing communication about the vaccines’ effectiveness. Growing population acceptance across the country can change perceptions of the risk. Psychologists point out that positive reinforcement can be more powerful than fear as a way to motivate healthy behavior.
Producers should also take note: The Boss’ star power for "Springsteen on Broadway" is expected to fill the St. James Theater, which will require guests to prove they’ve received FDA-approved vaccinations.
Broadway fans may have their doubts, but more headliners may help them break through.
This guest essay reflects the views of journalist Leida Snow, who writes frequently about the theater.