Expert Advice from Epitome's Production Safety & Risk Management Specialists


Examining Broadway’s Response to COVID-19

After going dark for more than a year, Broadway is set to fully reopen this month. The summer has seen a slow trickle of shows returning, but September marks the major reopening event.  

The return of the bright lights of “The Great White Way” comes with many safety procedures and protocols to protect performers, employees, and the audience. It also comes after a year of record losses and near-constant uncertainty.

This article is part of an ongoing series that explores the realm of large-scale events with an eye towards COVID-19 safety. In this first installment of “The Price of Admission,” we examine the state of COVID-19 within the live theatre world of Broadway.

To do this, we have divided this article into four parts:

  • The size of The Great White Way
  • Current COVID-19 protocols
  • Areas for improvement
  • The bottom line

Before we look at what Broadway is doing this year to keep its performers, crews, staff, and spectators safe, let’s take a moment to understand exactly what Broadway is.    

The Size of The Great White Way

For most of us, when we think about Broadway and Off-Broadway (and Off-Off-Broadway), we tend to think of a specific street. Broadway is on Broadway and Off-Broadways is, well, off Broadway. The fact that Broadway gets its name from a curving north-south street in Manhattan makes that an easy assumption. But that is not the whole story.

The first thing we all get wrong is that only three theatres are actually located on Broadway. All of the rest are, location-wise, off Broadway. But the real difference between Broadway and Off-Broadways has everything to do with size, not location:

  • Broadway theatres must have a seating capacity of 500 or more.
  • Off-Broadway theatre’s capacity is between 100-499.
  • Off-Off-Broadway theatre’s capacity is less than 100.

All the Broadway theatres are, however, located in roughly the same part of town (Midtown) except for one (Lincoln Center’s Beaumont). All of them are within walking distance from the street named Broadway, and as mentioned above, three of them are on Broadway itself. So, we all get partial credit for thinking it had something to do with location.

Broadway consists of 41 theatres, most of which are owned by three corporations: The Shubert, The Nederlander, and Jujamcyn Theatres. All together, Broadway pulls in around a billion dollars in annual revenue. In fact, revenue has been growing steadily for the last 15 years, and 2019 was Broadway’s highest-grossing year in history at just under $2 billion. 

Broadway also contributes over $14 billion dollars to the economy of New York City and supports nearly 97,000 jobs. COVID-19 shut it all down. 2020 was a year without theatre, which meant losses in the billions for theatre owners and the city of New York. It also meant massive unemployment.

The unions, production companies, and theatre owners took a year to develop a safe way to return shows to their audiences. Let’s look at how they plan to do it.

Current COVID-19 Protocols

It is important to note that the pandemic is not over. In fact, the Delta variant is causing all kinds of problems in America and the rest of the world. To safely reopen during a pandemic, Broadway has taken several bold steps. We would like to highlight three:

  1. Vaccine requirement
  2. Mask mandate
  3. New ventilation systems

Vaccine Requirement

Unlike the professional sports leagues we have covered in our “Sporting Chances” articles, Broadway is requiring proof of vaccinations to attend shows. They also require that all performers, staff, and employees be vaccinated too.

Proof of vaccination must be presented at the door to gain admission to the show. Both FDA and WHO vaccination cards will be accepted. With either card, you must have both shots recorded (if you received Moderna or Pfizer). The date of the final shot must be at least two weeks before the date of the show to allow for the vaccine to reach full effect.

This is an industry-leading step. No other segment of the entertainment industry – not theme parks, movies, or sports – has yet required vaccinations. With the FDA’s recent full approval of the Pfizer vaccines, more parts of the entertainment industry – and other industries altogether – will likely follow Broadway’s lead.

Mask Mandate

Broadway is not taking any chances, and they shouldn’t. COVID-19 kills. The Delta variant is triggering breakthrough cases. Now is not the time to ease up on safety.

In addition to requiring proof of vaccination, Broadway has mandated that audience members must wear masks during the show. Exceptions are permitted when eating or drinking. As the CDC makes crystal clear, masks help slow the spread of the virus.

This mask mandate will help to minimize any potential breakthrough spreads. Indoors – and in a crowd – is one of the most dangerous places to be in a pandemic, but with both vaccines and masks, Broadway theatres have increased safety. But Broadway theatres aren’t stopping there.

New Ventilation Systems

Actor’s Equity and The Broadway League announced at the end of July that part of their agreed path to reopening safely was new and improved HVAC systems. Some might say this is “going the extra mile,” but we here at Epitome Risk think this is a smart move and by no means “extra.”

We have been dealing with ventilation issues and have recommended improvements since the beginning of the pandemic. On film sets, ventilation issues arise all the time. Indoors is a very tricky place to be right now. HVAC systems can play an enormous role in increasing safety.

No solution is perfect: vaccines are not 100% effective, masks can fail sometimes, and sanitation can be sloppy. To fight a pandemic like this, we must combine efforts and stack defenses to maximize our chances of defeating the virus. By stacking the safety of vaccines, masks, and new ventilation systems, Broadways has done a lot to increase safety. It could still do more.

Areas for Improvement

We don’t want to be unfair here. Broadway is undoubtedly head-and-shoulders above nearly any other industry when it comes to COVID-19 safety. They should be applauded for all they have done, and many more industries should take note. But they could still go further.

We would like to point out a few areas where they could tighten the bolts and lock in maximum safety.

  1. Eliminate Vaccine Exceptions: Broadway is allowing exceptions for children under 12 (who are too young for vaccines currently) and for adults with religious issues. Eliminating all vaccine exemptions, at least in the short term, would significantly increase safety.
  2. Providing Masks: Not all masks are created equal. Broadway could maximize safety by providing high-quality masks to all audience members upon arrival. Show your proof of vaccination and get your free mask.
  3. Verify Immunity: To take things to the next level – both in terms of safety and revenue – Broadway could use Neutralizing Antibody Testing to verify immunity. As Dr. Hausman points out in his article on COVID-19 Passports, immunity to the coronavirus can come from either exposure to the virus or receiving a full dose vaccination. Given that there is so much misinformation out there about the vaccines and still so many unvaccinated people, Broadway could circumvent all of it by focusing on immunity. This would further increase safety while widening the potential audience pool.

Broadways is already doing more for COVID-19 safety than any other industry. Closing some of the vaccination exemptions, providing masks, and focusing on immunity alongside vaccinations, could make Broadway theatres even safer places to be during this pandemic.

The Bottom Line

September 2021 marks the return of this billion-dollar-a-year industry. It brings back some $14 billion to New York City’s economy and gives nearly 100,000 people back their jobs. This is all a reason to celebrate.

But the real surprise, the reason we here at Epitome Risk are celebrating, is because they are returning to the stage with a solid safety plan. Too often we see industries rushing to reopen without any plan at all. While we have identified areas for improvement, we want to congratulate everyone on Broadway for setting an decent example of how to reopen during a pandemic.

Broadway’s roots stretch back to before America was a country. It has survived The Revolution, the Civil War, two World Wars, the Spanish Flu Epidemic, the Great Depression, 9/11, and the Great Recession. With the help of their safety measures – and immunologists – it will survive the COVID-19 pandemic.

As risk management professionals, it pains us to say this, but it is tradition. So, from everyone here at Epitome Risk to all of you on Broadway, we would like to say, “break a leg.”

Join us next month when we look at The Price of Admission for concert venues.

Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.

DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before participating in organized athletics during a pandemic.