Broadway Theatres Make Face Masks Optional in Order To Boost Flagging Ticket Sales and Welcome Back Mask-Averse Out-Of-Town Audiences

Starting on July 1st, 2022 Broadway audiences were no longer required to wear face coverings. While the news itself is not shocking (the change has been planned for a few months, and was announced publicly), the new policy coincides with spiking Covid numbers in New York City, as well as a clear lack of consensus among the issue’s various stakeholders.

Tourist Season Holds Sway on The Mask Decision: That’s the Ticket

According to Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, “Our theater owners have been watching the protocols, watching admissions to hospitals, watching as we have no issues across the country where tours are mostly not masked, and they decided it was time to try.”

The experiment (St. Martin intends to “see how it goes”) comes at a time— the kickoff on the July 4th holiday weekend— when tourists tend to flock to New York City. Naturally, Broadway wants to capitalize on the droves of folks descending on Manhattan during those highly profitable summer months.

Broadway Safety Protocols Phased Out

During the week of May 6th, 2022 the majority of Broadway theaters ceased the rigorous process of verifying the vaccination status of their patrons. Covid numbers have been climbing steeply since then, causing anxiety among audiences, theater staff, and performers.

Many theatergoers just don’t feel safe in a room full of unmasked strangers. Audiences, though, are not the only stakeholders in the conversation. While some theater staff members may not endorse the new policy, many employees (ushers, in particular) are relieved not to have to police attendees anymore, even if they feel at greater risk to catch the virus.

Actors Express Concern With New Standard

Actors, too, have expressed concern over the mandate removal, since they are extremely vulnerable. American Buffalo’s Sam Rockwell spoke out unequivocally to the New York Times against the mask drop, and apparently his objections were heard by the show’s producers who responded in solidarity:

“Due to the close proximity of the audience to the actors as a result of the intimate size of the theater and the staging in the round, the production will continue to mandate audiences to wear masks in this space, despite the recent industry announcement of masking-optional across other Broadway theaters beginning July 1st, 2022”

Face Mask Wearing in Broadway Theatres Goes Optional
Face Mask Wearing in Broadway Theatres Goes Optional

Some Broadway Theatres Go Rogue

Other theaters have also gone rogue during these various pandemic sea changes. The Manhattan Theatre Club and Roundabout Theatre Company both extended their required proof of vaccination policy long after all the other theaters dropped theirs.

Can we expect a similar trend regarding masks, presuming that their more NY-centric audiences will oblige? It remains to be seen. The TDF intends to list what the policy is for each Broadway theatre on their screen at the Ticket Booth in Times Square

Mask On, Mask Off

Only time will tell what percentage of audiences will heed the “encouragement” and continue to keep masking. Perhaps, instead of relying exclusively on credit card metrics, scanning the theater crowds for naked faces will be the new way of identifying tourists.

Conventional logic suggests that out-of-towners are less risk averse, and could very well stand out from the crowd. Given that tourists are comfortable flying, dining, and participating in other indoor attractions, they won’t likely be deterred from buying tickets to a Broadway show, or attending mask-less.

Producers and the Broadway League are counting on that, and with this new policy, seemingly trying to provide an aisle of least resistance to increase profits.

Equity Association Weighs In

According to Actors’ Equity Association, the Broadway League acted “unilaterally” and “without input” from the union. The League disagrees, claiming that the announcement is “entirely consistent with [their] fully negotiated safety protocols.”

While the organizations don’t entirely agree on the narrative or sequence of events, Equity is going full-throttle in taking action to protect their members. Dr. Mark Cunningham-Hill, the union’s chief public health consultant, is committed to “enhanc[ing] ventilation” in its constituents’ workplaces.

As noted, there are a lot of moving parts to consider. Obviously, nobody can predict exactly how this new system will impact Covid trends or ticket sales which, in theory, is why St. Martin seems to be adopting a “wait and see” approach.

Meanwhile, murders on NYC streets remain high and subway pushings are now a daily incident that often goes unreported on local news due to its repetitive nature. Same story different day. The change in mask policy may not be enough to bring back the tourists.