Live performers find that red state COVID rules can be a tough act to follow
Theater companies and musical ensembles are restarting live performances after a crippling pandemic pause. In some states, artists find creative ways to get around laws that go against public health recommendations.
There was something a little different on stage at a recent performance of the musical “Sister Amnesia’s Country Western Nunsense Jamboree,” the first production for Montana's Missoula Community Theatre since the beginning of the pandemic.
All the actors wore clear face masks. That way, the audience could better see the actors’ expressions, which is “a pretty big deal in live theater,” said Jess Heuermann, who played Sister Mary Wilhelm in the show.
Theater companies and musical ensembles looking to resume live performances are coming up with creative ways to make sure the show goes on safely, particularly in states that ban venues from imposing vaccine or mask requirements.
In states without such bans, productions can require proof of vaccines for cast, crew, administrative staffers and audience members to protect against transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. That’s what all 41 Broadway theaters in New York City have done.
Other performers and venues are taking additional measures. The Chicago Symphony, for example, is for now limiting performances to 90 minutes or less, with no intermission. A Rock Hall, Maryland, venue left the first row of seats empty, in addition to requiring masks and proof of vaccination, for a recent musical performance.
But raising the curtain has been more of a struggle in states like Montana, Florida and Texas, where the politicization of public health measures has found its way inside theaters.
Florida and Montana ban state and local governments from requiring masks, but private businesses and entities are allowed to do so. Montana prohibits both private employers and government entities from “discrimination based on vaccine status.” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis barred businesses from requiring customers to show proof that they’d been vaccinated against COVID. In October, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott banned private employers from issuing COVID vaccine mandates.
Nine states — Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah — also have varied restrictions on requiring proof of vaccines.
Some big-name performers are canceling shows over vaccine or mask bans. Singer Michael Bublé, for example, canceled a September show in Austin because the University of Texas arena said it could not impose a vaccine requirement for audience members. University officials said they were confident in their health and safety protocols.
Country singer Travis Tritt took the opposite stance. He canceled a series of shows at venues with mask and vaccine mandates or “pushing testing protocols on my fans.”
Local troupes and performers who had been on a pandemic hiatus don’t have that luxury. They must work with — or around — their state’s rules if they want to work at all.
A survey by the advocacy group Americans for the Arts found 99% of nonprofit arts groups canceled events during the pandemic, amounting to 557 million lost ticketed admissions as of July.
Though some losses have been offset by federal aid, most arts groups and performers are reporting significant financial losses.
In Montana, the Missoula Community Theatre has reduced capacity and eliminated assigned seating, allowing patrons to be spaced apart while still sitting next to their “bubble” of friends and family for performances. Some people who had lowered their masks after taking their seats raised them up again after an announcement just before the performance began that it was required.
“People came to the theater tonight because they know the theater is trying to keep everyone safe,” said Paula Jones, a retired nurse in attendance.
But some theater operators seem anxious about scaring away potential patrons with such rules. For instance, the recently renovated Alberta Bair Theater in Billings, Montana, whose normal capacity is 1,376, recommends patrons wear masks but does not require it.
In Florida, nine theaters in Sarasota, along with others in Miami and Tampa, joined to create a uniform set of requirements for theatergoers meant to get around that state’s ban on vaccine mandates. Audience members must show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test conducted less than 72 hours before any performance.
Some people have complained about the policy to the Florida Department of Health, which can impose a $5,000 daily fine for violators of the state’s vaccine passport ban. Department officials have not acted on those complaints, but one small Sarasota troupe canceled a scheduled November show, saying it feared the owners of the operation couldn’t afford any fines.
Theater owners are also finding that a small percentage of people will resist their mask mandates, even after multiple reminders. If they try to impose a COVID safety measure that isn’t barred by state law, individuals opposed to the rules will ignore it.
“It’s like playing whack-a-mole,” said Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of the Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota. “As soon as you walk away from some people, they pull their masks down. We’ve had to tell people that ‘We’ve asked you three times politely that we require masks and if you can’t comply, you’ll have to go.’”
In Utah, the 360 singers in the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square in Salt Lake City are vaccinated, along with the orchestra and anybody else who enters the rehearsal and performance space. A handful of singers declined vaccinations and were put on leave, according to choir president Michael Leavitt, the former Republican governor of Utah and President George W. Bush’s Health and Human Services secretary.
Additionally, every choir member is tested for COVID before each rehearsal and performance. Performers are instructed to stay home if experiencing possible COVID symptoms, including sniffles. The choir did, however, drop a mask mandate for singers during rehearsals after complaints that voices were being muffled. Mask-wearing is still required when the choir is not singing.
Orchestra members have the option to take off their masks while performing if they feel a mask inhibits their performance.
Most important, Leavitt said, the choir, which still hasn’t scheduled its first performance before an audience, is prepared to pull back rehearsals and performances if things go wrong. It hasn’t set rules for audiences when performances begin. Some state lawmakers have proposed blocking vaccine mandates.
“I have used the analogy of walking into a newly frozen lake. Take one step at a time. Listen for cracking and if we don’t hear any, we’ll move forward. If we do, we’ll scamper back to shore,” Leavitt said.
Since COVID, performance groups are relying increasingly on members with medical backgrounds to advise them how to perform safely. That person for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is Dr. Susan Ray, a hospital epidemiologist and a soprano with the orchestra’s chorus.
Orchestra members now wear masks for both rehearsals and concerts. The choir is masked for rehearsals and plans to be masked for its first concert with the symphony, in December. The newly appointed conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann, does not wear a mask so she can better communicate with orchestra members, but is tested daily for COVID.
Ray is confident the orchestra is taking all the right steps to protect the choir audience, including a requirement that audience members show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test. “But I’m still nervous,” Ray said. “We have a lot of chorus members with gray hair, and not everyone is nice and thin.”
People 65 and older are among those more likely to experience serious medical issues from COVID, and obesity increases the risk.
Researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder and the University of Maryland recently advised that while masks reduce the flow of droplets for both singers and instrumentalists, the quality of the filtering material and fit are key components of effectiveness.
They also found that the longer that musicians play and sing together, the greater the risk. They recommend breaks after rehearsing or performing for 30 minutes indoors and 60 minutes outdoors. And they also suggest leaving several feet of distance between musical instrument players and singers to reduce “aerosol flow.”
“I want to acknowledge the courage of the music directors and the teachers to go ahead and follow our suggestions in the face of all of this adversity, fear and worry,” said Shelly Miller, co-author of the study and a professor of mechanical and environmental engineering at Colorado-Boulder.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that more than 15 minutes of exposure in an enclosed space with poor ventilation in which an infectious person is shouting, singing or exercising can increase the risk of transmitting the virus.
Some college students hoping to prepare for future employment in the arts worried that canceled classes and performances due to COVID might limit their future opportunities.
Lauren Bergen, 22, a senior theater student at Wagner College in Staten Island, New York, was so worried that she took the 2020-21 academic year off because of “so much potential for things to go wrong.”
Now, she’s back acting in Wagner College theater productions, and the school is following the same safety protocols required for Broadway shows.
Bergen’s first fall semester show was “Small Mouth Sounds,” a play chosen, in part, because it required actors to be “mostly silent,” according to Felicia Ruff, a Wagner College theater professor.
“We’ve very strategic in selecting shows that can be done safely,” Ruff said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.