Can I Go to See This Show? Must I Wear a Mask? It Depends.
During its premiere performances in June, the New York Classical Theater was allowed to present “King Lear” to only 75 outside spectators. These clients were socially distanced on picnic blankets, wore masks, and could not eat or drink during the play.
That same month, Foo Fighters performed a full capacity show inside Madison Square Garden for 15,000 vaccinated fans. Few wore face coverings; none were required to do so.
As New York City and the rest of the country begin the slow journey back to something akin to pre-pandemic life, rapidly evolving protocols in the state and across the country have created very different environments in theaters, the concert halls and sports arenas as operators seek to balance coronavirus concerns with their business plans and their customers’ desire for normalcy.
The different approaches in places perhaps a few miles from each other resulted in what some arts officials said was confusion and a whiplash feeling.
“There is frustration,” said Stephen Burdman, artistic director of the NY Classical Theater. “Things weren’t well communicated.”
In mid-June, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo lifted most of the state’s Covid-19 restrictions after 70% of adults in New York City received at least one dose of the vaccine, essentially paving the way for most spaces to do whatever they want – at least as far as the state is concerned. The state does not require a location to verify a person’s immunization status; and in all but the largest indoor venues, the policy of masking and social distancing is now left to the discretion of those putting on shows.
Many sites have sought to create an environment with as few reminders of the pandemic as possible. When Bruce Springsteen ushered in the Broadway comeback last month, he performed for a crowded St. James Theater with 1,721 barely masked and vaccinated fans. In Little Island’s open-air amphitheater, more than 600 people were crammed onto curved wooden benches – few of them wearing masks.
And at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, officials pointed out that making vaccinations an attendance requirement has had an added benefit: customers don’t need to wear masks as they enjoy drinks, dinner, and a show.
“Safety is paramount,” said Richard Frankel, one of the site’s owners. “After security, we want people to be comfortable and happy.”
Those who wish to attend the Off Broadway “Blindness” sound experience at the Daryl Roth Theater, for example, are no longer asked to complete a health questionnaire or have their temperature checked. But the venue continues to demand that audience members be socially estranged and wear face coverings inside the theater.
Public Theater is one of the institutions that have sought to find common ground.
Officials announced in early June that they planned to allow only 428 people to attend each performance of his famous Shakespeare in the Park, citing state rules as the reason they had to set such strict limits on the attendance. Then, on June 24, the public announced that it would significantly increase the capacity of the Delacorte Theater to 1,468 seats for its free performances of “Merry Wives” because the state had lifted its restrictions.
“The governor’s decree to lift the restrictions recognizes a beautiful reality: we are finally starting to recover from Covid-19,” Public Artistic Director Oskar Eustis said in a statement.
Now the Delacorte has both “full capacity” sections for people who show proof of full vaccination and “physically distanced” sections for others. Everyone, regardless of their immunization status, must wear a face mask at all times to enter the theater and to move around. But whether members of the public should wear a mask when seated depends on the section in which they are seated.
Those in charge of the arts also have to face the rules of the city and the unions created to ensure the safety of performances. Although the New York Classical Theater would perform outdoors, it still had to comply with restrictions imposed by its permit for city parks and by the actor’s union, which sets the rules under which its members are allowed to work.
The city’s theater permit for June preview performances set a cap on audience size, although city officials say that cap was lifted on July 6. The theater’s rule of hiding from the public was set by the actors ‘union, Actors’ Equity. . The union said the rule was only in place until early June, although Burdman said he was not told of any rule updates until June 30.
Burdman said he was not inclined to detail his pandemic-related performance rules in an interview in early July, lest his understanding be stale by the time an article appeared.
“Things honestly change so quickly, I don’t want something to go to press and not be compliant,” he said. “No one is totally clear.”
Asked Friday about the current state of affairs, Burdman said the rules had finally become clear. The audience no longer needs to socially distance themselves or wear masks, they can eat and drink again during the performance, and capacity limits have been restored to normal levels.
Frankel said the speed of change also exceeded Feinstein’s efforts to create a pleasant and highly organized safety manual. Its staff started compiling it as early as April 2020, but it had to be updated so many times over the course of a year that by the time of printing it was almost immediately made obsolete. “It was such a beautiful document,” he lamented.
Large indoor event venues should always follow somewhat stricter state guidelines. People who show proof of vaccination no longer need to wear masks or socially distance themselves within these places. But unvaccinated people must show proof of a recent negative coronavirus test to be admitted and must wear masks indoors.
“It’s a little overwhelming to be back with people,” said Molly Wissell, 31, of Virginia as she waited to enter the Foo Fighters concert at Madison Square Garden last month. “Standing in line and not having our masks on makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. “
A participant in the crowded concert in the stands openly boasted of being admitted even though he said he had not been vaccinated.
About an hour earlier, Marianna Terenzio, 30, of Battery Park, said she was happy there were rules in place limiting who could attend the show.
“I like that they ask people to show proof of vaccination,” she said. “I feel more secure, for sure. “
Michael Paulson, Julia Jacobs and Jon Caramanica contributed reporting.
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