“Bringing together more than a thousand people into one room during a pandemic, as an epidemiologist, is something that I would not endorse if I didn’t really believe that it can be done safely,” says Dr. Blythe Adamson, one of many physicians and scientists working to open the doors of Broadway theaters.
Adamson has been strategizing at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City, one of the first Broadway houses to reopen, according to the Associated Press. Pass Over is currently on the boards there, a show written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu that features only two performers. As with Springsteen On Broadway, also up this summer, the smaller production makes for a good test case. Adamson has watched Pass Over from the audience and backstage. She’s monitored the restrooms and even inspected the HVAC ventilation system on the roof of the West 52nd Street building. (Audiences already have to show their COVID vaccine cards to enter and are encouraged to wear masks.)
Adamson’s group, Infectious Economics, is part of a newly in-demand industry. They are “a public health company with pandemic risk-reduction strategies powered by epidemiology and economics,” as described by their website. The company was founded in 2017, and Adamson was a member of a team that led to the much-heralded “NBA Bubble” last year.
Theaters and other public venues that are taking steps to increase airflow are probably not looking at a temporary fix. “I hope that it will lead to a permanently healthier building for these employees to work in,” Adamson says, noting that this will reduce the risk of flu and other viruses “long after COVID.”
Unfortunately, part of what makes Broadway charming, those older theaters whose walls have witnessed history, are not the greatest for virus prevention. It’s cramped backstage, the corridors are narrow, there are many sealed-up windows, the orchestra is literally in a pit, most dressing rooms are tiny and shared, and the bathrooms quickly become a chokepoint. Considering that the clientele of Broadway often skews older, this is an even greater concern for public health.
Still, the industry is planning a staggered reopening for major shows starting in mid-September. The Disney Theatrical Group, one of the bigger engines on the Great White Way, detailed to the AP some of the changes they’ve made to mitigate the problem. In addition to mandating vaccines for workers, they are testing company members each day, and because some of their shows feature kids, they are requiring masks backstage. There are other simple ways to lower risk. For example, a manager realized that two performers shared a dressing room but were not on stage together. Considering that if one got sick, this would cause a bigger disruption, they changed the arrangement.
Over at the August Wilson, there’s now a Broadway vet with a new job description: COVID safety manager. Pam Remler collects spit from anyone working the show and schedules tests. “This is absolutely doable,” she says. “We can have an industry. We can do it right.”
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