The rapid rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine has increased optimism about indoor theater swiftly reopening in the U.S. Infectious disease specialists Thursday afternoon said Covid 19-testing, enhanced theater ventilation and continued mask-wearing are also key to restarting the industry, which must be done gradually.
“I try to remind people, there’s not going to be one flip-the-switch moment in society,” Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor on the coronavirus, told an audience of about 500 streaming live. “There will be a moving of the dial, step by step.”
Slavitt noted at the Covid-19 Theatre Think Tank Town Hall that 100 million Americans to-date have had at least one shot of a Covid vaccine. That’s significant, he said, but it still leaves 230 million people in the country unvaccinated, as a thousand people die every day from the virus.
He and the others interviewed by New York magazine theater critic Helen Shaw didn’t offer an opinion about when Broadway and the rest of indoor theater should restart. (A couple of Broadway shows, including American Utopia and Diana the Musical, have announced plans to resume performances later this year.) Nor was there discussion about how to fund potentially expensive Covid protocols, or specific reference to Actors’ Equity Association’s far-reaching requirements, which are the subject of a town hall by the union next week.
“Theaters are so different from each other,” said Blythe Adamson, an epidemiologist and economist. “Just like schools are different from each other. The right policies for a theater that can seat 50 are going to be really different than one that can seat 1500.”
Other noteworthy observations from the 90-minute discussion, which is to be the first in a series from the Covid-19 Theatre Think Tank, a new industry research group:
On the dangers of an intermission: “We’ve seen studies from Germany that have showed us that intermission can be one of the riskiest times in a live entertainment show,” Adamson said. “Intermission is when people are all mixing together and taking off masks and eating and drinking alcohol in a very small space together.”
On wearing masks and other precautions: “You’re going to be vaccinated but you’re still going to have to protect yourself because you can still get it,” said Teresa Y. Smith, associate dean of graduate medical education at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine. “And the research is still not out yet to say whether you’d still be a carrier if you’re vaccinated…..You still have to have to wear the mask, you still have to make sure you’re doing hand sanitization and washing your hands and keeping the social distance because we may be carriers and pass it on to the unvaccinated…We will let people into theater and normal life, slowly…We still need to get our children vaccinated before we can even talk about herd immunity” (i.e. when enough people are immune from Covid that the whole population is protected).
On upgrading theaters’ air circulation: “You can simulate in effect being outdoors indoors with the right type of filtration and ventilation,” Slavitt said. “It’s way more important than six feet of distancing or hand washing…You get someone into a crowded room where people are singing and clapping and yelling and it’s enclosed and the air is not circulating: That’s exactly the danger. You don’t leave with one case [of Covid]. You leave with dozens and dozens of cases…and then you have to close [the show] or what have you….My guess is that very high risk people may be uncomfortable going in-person to shows, unless there is a Sunday show only for people who are vaccinated, or something like that…You will step into it with a multi-layered approach.”
On mandating vaccinations for theatergoers: “I don’t think you’re going to see the federal government play a strong role,” Slavitt said, noting that approach may be perceived as coercive or an overreach. “It may take a theater owner to decide, ‘Boy, I had a show that didn’t require vaccination status and it was only 10 percent filled. And then I had one that required it and it was 100 percent filled. Or vice versa.’ So I think you’ll make your own decisions, with the people that make your policies.”
[According to a recent survey by the market research company Shugoll, 75 percent of Washington, DC-area theatergoers said they’re willing to show proof of vaccination at the door.]
“As an economist, I would say we should incentivize people to be vaccinated,” Adamson said. “‘Mandate’ is a pretty harsh word. Rewarding and encouraging people for showing up vaccinated supports a broader community effort that we’re trying to do together.”
On ongoing testing for Covid: “Testing provides information for surveillance in general, to have an understanding of where the virus is spreading and to what degree,” said Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at City University of New York. “What we want is for the overall numbers to get lower and to have a good line of sight to know that if we have a hot spot, we can quickly contain that hot spot.”
“The testing protocols for performers who must remove their masks will be different than all of the members of the theater staff who are able to do their jobs while staying masked,” Adamson said.
On performing outdoors: “We need to be encouraging and affirming outdoor activities as one of the safest things that we can be doing together,” Adamson said. “There’ve been studies that show that the transmission risk is 28 times higher indoors than outdoors. Not all productions can be done outside. But even the rehearsal that can be done outside, we really should be doing it as much as possible.”
On planning for reopening: “Plan now,” Dr. Smith said. “Even if you don’t have a go-live date…There are so many layers. There’s a lot to think about and to talk about.”