As more and more Americans receive a COVID-19 vaccine and theatres in New York and beyond cautiously reopen their doors, myriad uncertainties remain in the wings. To address the current state of the pandemic and its implications for the performing arts industry, the COVID Theatre Think Tank assembled its first national town hall event April 1.
The 90-minute discussion, moderated by New York Magazine theatre critic Helen Shaw, featured White House COVID-19 Response Team Senior Advisor Andy Slavitt, infectious disease epidemiologist and economist Blythe Adamson, Associate Dean at SUNY Downstate College of Medicine Teresa Y. Smith, and Public Health Computational and Operations Research Founder and Executive Director Bruce Y. Lee.
"There will be a moving of the dial, step by step," Slavitt assured, while cautioning that the path of returning to live performance is a gradual one. Broadway shows don't open without development, rehearsals, and previews—and this is no exception. As for what those steps might entail, watch the full conversation above, and check out five takeaways, of note for theatre presenters and theater goers alike, below.
Give Hygiene Theatre the Closing Notice
Audiences may be eager for the return of live performance, but not all theatre is good theatre. “My fear is that we’re going to waste a lot of time doing ‘hygiene theatre,’” Adamson said, referring to performative practices that convey safety on a surface level. Just as our wealth of knowledge on the coronavirus changed over time, so must our practices in preventing and combating it: “If we reopen theatres just with temperature checks and using Lysol wipes on armrests, I’m going to be really disappointed.” Instead, Adamson urges those resources go into efforts to improve air filtration and ventilation systems: “I think investments in that type of infrastructure will pay off in the long run, even after COVID, of making sure that we have healthy air in all of these community spaces.”
That’s not to say you can stop washing your hands or take that hand sanitizer out of your bag; those are unequivocally good habits in any environment. But theatres’ practices should be based on science and research, not platitudes. Adamson pointed to studies indicating transmission rate can be 28 times higher indoors than outdoors and that intermissions, when audience members are mingling, unmasking, and eating or drinking, is perhaps the riskiest part of the theatergoing experience.
Testing Testing 1, 2, 3
Members of the panel agreed that routine COVID testing will remain a standard procedure in the pandemic fallout. Adamson cited the effectiveness of testing on sports teams and in schools, and shared some ways those institutions have financially and logistically streamlined the process (such as practicing pool testing).
“The idea of testing is getting a picture of what is going on,” Lee said. It’s a practice that won’t itself prevent the spread from happening at all, but can certainly surveil and identity hot spots that may require further containment. “If you have nothing but testing, that’s like having nothing but underwear on,” he continued. “It’s just one line of defense. But if you’re layering on different things, then you have more redundancy and more protection.”
Rise Up, Time to Get a Shot
As vaccine eligibility continues to expand, with all adults in American on track to be able to schedule a vaccine appointment by May 1, the question looms: will audiences be required to get vaccinated? That may be up to the individual theatres. “I don’t think you’re going to see the federal government play a strong role,” Slavitt said. “I think you’ll make your own decisions with the people that make your policies.”
Herd immunity is not dependent on virtually all individuals receiving a vaccine. So while a vaccine “mandate” may be “pretty harsh,” according to Adamson, an admittance policy based on vaccine status could perhaps be framed as an incentive. “Rewarding and encouraging people for showing up vaccinated supports a broader community effort that we’re trying to do together.”
Working in Harmony
No surprise here: Communication and planning are key. The panel outlined three dialogues that theatre companies should engage in during the reopening process:
- A line of communication between theatres and county health officials—different regions will require different precautions based on confirmed cases or testing and vaccination availability.
- A connection between the theatres themselves, ensuring no group is operating as a solo act. As Smith puts it, “While there is vertical communication, there should also be horizontal communication.”
- Communication between theatres and the unions that represent their workers. Adamson urged that unions should base their standards to keep workers safe “on reasonable things and not just showiness.”
What should theatres—particularly those who have an eye on welcoming back audiences, take form these dialogues? Smith advises to not fall into the same trap many faced in the early days of the pandemic. “One of the issues we had last spring was that we didn’t have a plan. We were not prepared. So plan now…while your ‘go live’ date may be unknown and with a question mark, planning should be done now.” Similarly, reopenings guidelines should lean on the conservative side at first, and gradually relax: “Start a little bit stricter, and then loosen up as science and vaccinations become much more ubiquitous within our society.”
The Great Work Begins…
This was just the first of what will become several town hall events from the COVID Theatre Think Tank. The dialogue will continue as the landscape of theatre reopening evolves. CTT shared during the event that a subsequent discussion would focus specifically on air handling systems, and, in response to numerous audience-submitted questions, another would address safety protocols stipulated by various theatre worker unions—an issue some commenters called out as a potential roadblock on the path to reopening.