Masks at the theater are nothing new. In the days of Ancient Greek Drama, actors wore huge, carefully-crafted masks. The title character of “The Phantom of the Opera,” the longest-running show in Broadway history, wears a half face mask. Performers at “The Lion King” wear imposing animal masks. And at the long-running immersive theater attraction “Sleep No More,” audience members wear ghoulish hard face masks while chasing Lady Macbeth down multiple flights of stairs.
With that in mind, is it really such a big deal for audience members to have to keep wearing face masks – at least for now?
On Feb. 10, Governor Hochul lifted the statewide mask-or-vaccine mandate for indoor businesses, with the proviso that businesses could still choose to require these safety measures. At the same time, however, the Key to NYC vaccine requirement is still in effect for indoor public activities including live entertainment.
In response to queries about whether Broadway shows would still require audience members to wear masks, the Broadway League (the trade organization representing Broadway theater owners and producers) confirmed that audience members will still be required to wear masks (except “while actively eating or drinking in designated locations”) through at least April 30, 2022. Off-Broadway and other theaters in the city will likely follow Broadway’s example.
Looking back to June 2020, when “Springsteen on Broadway” was the only show that had reopened on Broadway, audience members had to present proof of vaccination but did not need to wear masks. (Opening night of the show was marked by some protesting the vaccine requirement.) In any event, when Broadway as a whole reopened in the fall, masks and proof of vaccination were required at all theaters.
Without a doubt, we all look forward to the day (perhaps before the end of the year, if not even sooner) when face masks will no longer be required at the theater (which can be uncomfortable to wear during a long show). However, were it not for the mask requirement, it is unlikely that Broadway would not have been able to reopen last fall. Performers and backstage and front-of-stage employees, virtually all of whom are unionized, demanded safe working conditions that minimized the risk of exposure to COVID. Also, many audience members would have felt uncomfortable attending without the mask requirement.
While one might feel that masks are no longer necessary at the theater at this point, let’s not forget what happened just two months ago, when the Omicron variant wrecked total havoc on Broadway over the holidays, causing numerous shows to cancel performances during what is traditionally the most well-attended and highest-grossing time of the year.
On a related topic, some people have lately been complaining about the ushers and house managers who have the unenviable task of enforcing the mask requirement and singling out audience members who have taken off their masks or are not wearing them properly. They are just doing their job. For the record, I have been regularly attending Broadway and Off-Broadway shows since last summer and I have not witnessed a single incident involving an unruly audience member who had to be reprimanded for flouting the mask mandate.