No Total Lockdown for Broadway During Omicron Surge

Amidst the recent Omicron wave in New York City, Broadway has decided the show must go on.

People show their proof of vaccination as they arrive to attend “The Lion King” on September 14, 2021 at the Minskoff Theatre in New York, as Broadway musicals return after being dark for 18 months due the coronavirus pandemic. – Hamilton, Wicked and Chicago also opened for the fully vaccinated (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP) (Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Omicron variant has dulled but, so far, not put out the lights on Broadway. With daily case rates soaring to over 16,000 a day in New York, as high as it’s ever been, and growing exponentially, the extra contagious variant—four times more transmissible than the Delta—has driven many New Yorkers into a state of high anxiety. Weekend plans are getting cancelled, and fears of another lockdown over the holidays loom. For the time being, however, despite numerous cancellations on and off Broadway, a full-scale shutdown isn’t planned. 

While productions continue for some, Omicron outbreaks have forced many shows to cancel performances or shut down altogether. As of writing this, Broadway musicals “Hamilton,” “Hadestown,” “Dear Evan Hansen,” “MJ,” “Aladdin,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg: The Life and Times of the Temptations” and “The Lion King” have canceled all shows until after Christmas. Additionally, “Moulin Rouge,” “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” have canceled individual performances. “Jagged Little Pill,” the Alanis Morissette musical, announced last week that it would not reopen after the holidays in order to secure the safety of its cast and crew.

Some cancellations have come to shows that have only just gotten back on their feet after nearly two years under lockdown. The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, which had only recently returned to work, cancelled the rest of the run of their “Christmas Spectacular.” Likewise, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which had resumed performances only weeks ago, had to cancel performances due to a COVID outbreak. 

In live television, a COVID outbreak among the cast and crew at Saturday Night Live last week was identified early and the showrunners were able to remake the show to accommodate a vastly reduced production team. The outbreak resulted in a bare bones holiday episode of pre-filmed sketches, which aired without a live studio audience.

Despite the surging positivity rate, live productions are doing their best to stay open. The safety of audience, cast, and crew are assured, in part, because of the protocols that were insisted upon by unions prior to theaters reopening. Over the summer, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the union representing actors and stage managers, and The Broadway League, the Broadway industry’s trade association, announced a safe reopening agreement that includes mandatory vaccinations for cast and crew and regular testing. Masks and proof of vaccination are also required for audience members. Productions must also employ a COVID Safety Manager to ensure that safety protocols are always observed.

Isaac Grivett is a stitcher for “Caroline, or Change” as well as a COVID Safety Officer at “Flying Over Sunset.” He described to Observer the highly competent set of procedures in place for when a theater worker tests positive for COVID. Grivett described how workers who test positive are immediately notified to stay home. If the worker is in the theater, they are told to leave the building. They are then monitored until they either test negative or are deemed noncontagious by a doctor. Those who have been exposed to them are notified and the safety officer works with an epidemiologist to adjust the protocols for those who remain in the building.  Although the exact protocols for these situations differ from theater to theater, across productions safety precautions appear to be highly stringent.  

Grivett describes feeling overall very safe at work. He told Observer, “We almost always have our test results before getting in the building and during shows everyone knows everyone else there is negative.”

Grivett told Observer that a show is only canceled when there aren’t enough people left in the building who are safe and testing negative to put on the show. If a principal actor and their understudy, for instance, both test positive, a show cannot be staged. 

COVID Safety Officers mainly work the back of the house: dealing with cast and crew. COVID Safety Team members, meanwhile, work the front of the house: making sure the audience observes the protocols. Sandy Sahar Gooen is a COVID Safety Team Member for several Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. His job working “mask up shifts,” making sure audience members keep their masks up and managing those who refuse to comply, is a test of endurance. He told Observer, “I’ve had rowdy patrons call me every name in the book, scream, shout, take off their mask, and not been able to have as easy a time tracking down security.” 

Gooen also describes systemic issues at play in the way that noncompliant audience members are dealt with, including security guards being far more likely to call the police on a Black audience member than on a white one. “If a person of color is hostile, they call the cops,” Gooen told Observer. “If a white person is hostile, they might not do as much, if anything at all.”

Gooen describes the Omicron spike coming with a new set of restrictions for Broadway, with increased vigilance during “mask up shifts” and some theaters now requiring PCR testing and vaccine boosters.

As of January 17, The Metropolitan Opera will require audience members to have vaccine boosters. Likewise, The Public Theater, through January 30, will require audience members to show proof of a negative PCR test or rapid antigen test taken within 72 hours of the performance start time. 

Although vaccines have proven less effective against the new Omicron variant, unless boosted, the still very low hospitalization rate shows that the vaccines remain highly effective. While many more people are testing positive, few are getting seriously ill. Despite caseloads increasing exponentially week-by-week a full-scale shutdown of theater in New York isn’t planned. Theaters are cancelling shows on a case-by-case basis and the status quo, although fraught with anxieties and contradictions, is for now allowed to continue.   No Total Lockdown for Broadway During Omicron Surge