Broadway Theaters and Concert Venues Try to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ in the Age of the Coronavirus

By Jeremy Del Nero on 12 March 2020
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Theaters and concert halls are used to, what one might call, “normal” disruptions, somewhat regionalized in nature, such as snowstorms or hurricanes or even earthquakes.  But the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic is an entirely new beast for them to deal with.  There’s no playbook here, no emergency plan that covers all exigencies that could arise. As a result, each institution has had to educate itself and its people about how to attempt to stay open to the public during these turbulent times.

Today, any gathering of more than a few people where social distancing (3’ or 1 m) isn’t possible is likely to raise an eyebrow.  Is the person in back of you sneezing?  What about the cough you hear coming from the balcony section?

Enter Covid-19.  Covid-19 is the infectious disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Unknown at the time of the outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December, 2019, it has since reached pandemic proportions and is present in at least 113 countries, areas, and territories.

Case in point: A Broadway theater, by definition, has a minimum of 500 seats and most have many more.  There are 41 such theaters in New York City and many more off Broadway and off off Broadway houses.  The largest is the 1,993-seat Gershwin Theatre, home to the musical “Wicked” since 2003; the smallest is the 597-seat Helen Hayes, where a revival of Richard Greenberg’s “Take Me Out” is scheduled to open on April 2.

Once inside, a theatergoer comes in close contact with ticket takers, touches the doors of the W.C., touches the armrests and the back of the seat in front of him.  If these aren’t disinfected after each show, the virus could linger.

The theatergoer also comes into contact with several ushers en route to his seat and already one usher who worked at both the 766-seat Booth Theater, where a revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is in previews, and at the 1,031-seat Brooks Atkinson Theater, where “Six,” a British musical about the wives of King Henry VIII, is in previews, has already tested positive, sending shockwaves through the theater community.

In addition, Broadway tradition dictates that stars greet their fans at the stage door to sign Playbills and posters.  The Broadway League, an industry group, has told its members to curtail stage-door activities for the time being and already many theaters have done so and the group said its members are taking a number of steps, although it didn’t go into the level of detail as hotels and airlines do as they try to induce the traveling public to, well, travel.

The Shubert Organization, which operates the Booth, as well as the Nederlander Organization with its Brooks Atkinson, both said in separate statements that the two theaters were undergoing a deep cleaning.

Meanwhile, New York City Center, a 2,257-seat Moorish revival theater that also is home to two smaller theaters and produces major shows including an impressive production of “Evita” last fall and Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake’ this past February, said it had implemented “enhanced environmental cleaning” solutions throughout the facility, is switching to cleaning solutions that disinfect, and is focusing on disinfecting frequently touched surfaces such as armrests.

Of course, there’s an interesting historical parallel in the Spanish flu of 1918. During the epidemic, which ran from January 1918 through December 1920, 500 million people – or one-quarter of the world’s population – became infected, and the death toll was estimated to have been between 17 million to 50 million.

Officials banned large public gatherings in Seattleand shut down theatersand schools, and famously mandated the wearing in public of gauze masks. In contrast, Broadway houses remained open, yet there was little difference in the excess death rate for the two cities.

Not only have governments in multiple European countries enacted measures that have resulted in the closings of local theaters, but the State of Washington on Wednesday banned gatherings of more than 250 people in the Seattle area, effectively forcing the closing of theaters there.

Airlines are implementing innovative ways of disinfecting aircraft prior to flights including of the use of a fogging technique using a highly effective EPA-registered disinfectant to remove any germs left on board the aircraft. In addition, given the rate of air exchange on an airplane, it’s one of the safest places to be in the coronavirus era. Today’s aircraft are equipped with state-of-the-art circulation systems that blend fresh outside air that is sterilized with a high-temperature compressor and ozone purifier with existing cabin air that has been directed through an industrial-grade HEPA filter. Theaters may have to go a similar route.

Still, depending on how the wind shifts, things could change at a moment’s notice.

“When you get community spread, it makes the challenge much greater. I can say we will see more cases and things will get worse than that are right now,” said National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases leader Dr. Anthony Fauci at a hearing on March 10, 2020 on Capitol Hill. “How much worse we’ll get, will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country. Bottom line, it’s going to get worse.”

Meanwhile, Madonna, Pearl Jam, and Santana are among the artists who have cancelled or postponed concerts.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra and the American Ballet Theater have cancelled tours abroad.

Finally, the coronavirus outbreak has had an impact on the live studio audience.  Numerous New York- and West Coast-based television shows including the morning news program “Good Morning America” and the game show “Jeopardy!” have stopped conducting in front of an audience thanks to the virus. The decision to can the live studio audience hasn’t yet reached late-night talk shows such as “The Tonight Show,” broadcast from NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center and the longest-running talk show as well as the longest-running, regularly scheduled entertainment program in the United States, and “The Late Show,” which airs from the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway in New York City’s Theater District.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, a spokesman for the Broadway League said in a statement, after a short storm-initiated hiatus, that “the show must go on.”  The novel coronavirus may test the resilience of the concert and music scene but the show should and will go on.

Jonathan Spira contributed reporting to this story.

(Photo: Accura Media Group)

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