‘You can’t socially distance the cast or the crew’: Why Broadway faces challenges to reopening

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Two days after the devastating attack on New York City on 9/11, then-mayor Rudy Giuliani ordered shuttered Broadway theatres to reopen. He hoped it would be a signal of the city’s resilience and show the world that the city could pick itself up after an unspeakable tragedy.

New York City is again facing loss on a monumental scale, but this time during the pandemic, the curtain will stay closed much longer, and the industry that’s been described as the city’s beating heart will be among the last to return.

“We wish it were back tomorrow, but certainly now with every indication that we’re getting is that we believe that September is probably the most optimistic date,” said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, an industry trade group.

The challenges facing Broadway is a laundry list of the biggest issues confronting cities across North America as they reopen after quarantine orders. It includes everything from safety measures to protect workers, audience and performers, to increased testing and tracing so the public feels safe to congregate in large numbers.

Right now, Broadway is shut down until June 7, effectively ending the 2019-20 season. The biggest challenge is that, with razor-thin profit margins, the industry in its current state can’t operate with physical distancing measures in place. 

St. Martin says keeping audience members two metres apart would limit the audience to 30 per cent of normal capacity, and that simply isn’t sustainable. 

“There is no way the financial model works for social distancing unless we have a complete new financial model,” she said.

The St. James Theater closed during the pandemic on April 8 in New York City. The Broadway League announced the same day that theatres will remain closed until June 7, effectively ending the 2019-20 season. (Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

Don’t attract visitors

A key part of reopening any major urban area is ensuring the rate of transmission remains low by continual enforcement of physical distancing. A crowded theatre brings a mixed group together in close quarters, a nightmare scenario for public health officials.

“It’s gonna be a tough thing for them to open in the way it’s been, until there is herd immunity or a vaccine,” said Dr. Jonathan Ellen, an epidemiologist who authored a report on reopening New York for the Manhattan Institute, which describes itself as a free market think-tank. 

Canadian Broadway actor Paul Nolan, known for roles in Slave Play and Jesus Christ Superstar, is waiting out the pandemic back home in Saskatchewan, working on the family farm. (Submitted by Paul Nolan)

New York state’s official reopening plan relegates attractions, such as Broadway, to its third and final phase with no set timeline. The second of 12 guidelines states that regions cannot open businesses that draw large numbers of visitors from outside the local area.

“As much as tourism floats the boat of New York right now, [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo doesn’t want to have things that draw people in. He’s very specific about that,” Ellen said. “Getting sports and theatre events is the back of the line.” 

Coming off a starring role in Slave Play, which the New York Times described as “one of the best and most provocative new works to show up on Broadway in years,” Canadian actor Paul Nolan was auditioning in New York for TV and film work when the virus hit.

Plowing fields

Suddenly a preplanned March trip to Saskatchewan to visit family turned into an extended stay at the farm of his sister and brother-in-law in Rouleau, south of Regina. Now, instead of prepping to take the stage, he’s plowing fields for spring planting, with no immediate plans to return to Broadway

“I don’t even need to have any expertise in the field to see that people are not going to likely want to be sitting too close together for a long time,” Nolan said. 

I think that realistically looking at it for me, I’ll be lucky to be auditioning for anything seriously until next year.– Canadian actor Paul Nolan

With no role in a current production, he says he would need to audition for a new show before returning to Broadway, so a return to the stage is many months away.

“I think that realistically looking at it for me, I’ll be lucky to be auditioning for anything seriously until next year.”

A man wears a mask as he passes the closed St. James Theater where the musical Frozen plays after it was announced March 12 that Broadway shows will cancel performances due to the outbreak. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

The show must go on … eventually

While hits like Hamilton are financial successes, St. Martin says most shows take two years to recoup their initial investment. So costs would have to be cut across the board for shows to work with physical distancing still in place.

I mean, even if we could socially distance, you can’t socially distance the cast or the crew.– Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League

“That’s lower wages, lower rents, lower costs from all of the designers, lower everything,” St. Martin said. “I mean, even if we could socially distance, you can’t socially distance the cast or the crew.”

If that hurdle could be crossed, the theatre experience itself would be very different. Masks and gloves would be mandatory for staff. Temperature checks before entry and intensive cleanings every night.

Nolan says he’ll follow mandates from public health officials about when it’s safe to return, but the longer the situation drags on, the tougher it will be for theatre staff and performers to stay home.

“It will get bad enough economically for people like me and that we will have to take the risk,” Nolan said. 

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Broadway’s domino effect

Keeping Broadway on the sidelines will have a ripple effect on New York’s massive tourism industry. The Broadway League says Broadway attendance for the 2018-19 season outdrew all 10 of New York and New Jersey’s major sports teams combined. 

The League also says tourists make up 65 per cent of audiences, and overall the industry injects $14.7 billion US into New York’s economy and supports more than 96,000 jobs.

Many of those jobs are in the city’s hotel industry. Right now, more than half the city’s hotels are shut down, and occupancy is down 80 per cent, a historic low in a city that’s seen its share of shocking events.

“If you add all the big external shocks that have hit New York in the last 30 years, going back to the first Gulf War, to the dot-com crash, to 9/11, to the Great Recession, all of them combined don’t add up to a loss that we’ve seen here,” said Vijay Dandapani, president of the Hotel Association of New York City. 

He says hotels are developing guidelines for everything from barriers at front desks, to physical distancing in lobbies. Informal discussions are also being had around a rating system, like the grading system used in restaurants, to assure customers the premises are safe.

Bringing back crowds

Beyond the challenges of sanitation and hygiene, Dandapani says the biggest hurdle the tourism industry will have to overcome in New York will be perception.

“The biggest challenge is if public health authorities are able to convince everybody that it’s safe to come back,” Dandapani said.

A recent survey of Canadians by Leger found 54 per cent of respondents would not feel comfortable travelling to the U.S. until there was a vaccine, and 26 per cent would wait until 2021.

If locals start to use restaurants that will instil confidence for people to come back.– Vijay Dandapani of Hotel Association of New York City

St. Martin says the League’s research shows 80 per cent of tourists who come to the city cite Broadway as the first or second reason for their visit. She says once the city’s health indicators show a steady drop for consecutive weeks, her association will begin research into audience behaviour to gauge when people feel safe coming back.

Dandapani says based on the experience from similar events, such as H1N1 and SARS, the key to convincing tourists that the region is safe will be how locals behave. 

“If locals start to use restaurants that will instil confidence for people to come back,” Dandapani said. 

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