Broadway theaters will be allowed to drop their mask mandates starting July 1, the Broadway League announced Tuesday.
The League called the new policy “mask optional” and said it would be reassessed monthly.
“Our theater owners have been monitoring protocols, monitoring hospital admissions, observing that we have no issues across the country where visitations are generally unmasked, and they decided it was time to give it a try. “said Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway league. “It’s not an easy decision – there are more people who want to take masks off than put them on, but many still want to put them on – and we encourage people who have concerns to wear their masks.”
St. Martin said theater owners would continue to meet weekly to assess the health situation and were willing to reimpose the mandate if necessary. “We’ll see how it goes,” she said.
Broadway had maintained fairly restrictive audience policies since reopening theaters last summer. Theaters required patrons to show proof of vaccination through April 30 and continued to require patrons to wear masks except when eating and drinking.
Broadway’s public health protocols have played an outsized role in the performing arts, as many other institutions have taken inspiration from major theaters. Broadway theaters imposed a vaccination mandate before New York City did the same for restaurants, gyms and other indoor performances, then maintained their rules long after the city stopped requiring them.
Mask-wearing became part of the theatrical experience this season: Employees waving signs lined the aisles reminding patrons of the requirement, and reminders to wear masks were added to regular pre-show announcements regarding the extinction of cell phones and the prohibition of photography. When theaters first reopened, some did not sell food and drink to avoid interfering with mask-wearing; drinking refreshments is now a notable escape for those who don’t like wearing masks.
Some other performance venues, including many Off Broadway theaters, continue to require proof of vaccinations and mandate masks, and public transit in New York continues to require masks indoors, although the compliance decreases. But many other sectors of society, including domestic air travel, have dropped mask mandates and conditions in the city appear to be improving: Mayor Eric Adams said Tuesday that the Covid-19 alert level of the city had gone from high to medium.
There are currently 27 shows running at the 41 Broadway theaters.
The four nonprofits that operate six of the Broadway houses have clung to vaccination mandates longer than the commercial owners who operate the majority of theaters. But none of the nonprofits currently have a show on Broadway, and none plan to resume production on Broadway before Labor Day.
Roundabout Theater Company, which is due to begin performances of a Broadway revival of ‘1776’ in September, plans to assess its protocols monthly, according to a spokeswoman, Jessica Johnson, who said it was too soon to determine the rules for this fall. The nonprofit continues to maintain a mask mandate for its current Off Broadway shows.
The other nonprofits operating on Broadway, which plan to start shows in the fall, said it was too early to know what their safety protocols would be then.
Public reaction to the mask-optional policy was predictably polarized, with some applauding what they saw as a late step, and others ruining a retreat they saw as reckless.
Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, a regular at Broadway theaters as a Tony voter and professor of theater studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said he would continue to wear a mask while seeing shows. “It’s important, when you have people this tightly packed together, to control the flow of airborne germs at a time when we don’t know what the long-term effect of Covid will be,” did he declare.