Starting this May, vaccination checks for audience members on Broadway will largely be a thing of the past.
And with the policy change, some positions within the theater industry will be mostly eliminated, including that of the workers checking patrons’ vaccination cards outside many of the theaters. The change comes after many Broadway theater owners elected to drop the vaccine mandate for audience members starting May 1.
Broadway’s mask mandate for audience members remains in place through at least May 31.
The vaccine requirement was put in place at all Broadway theaters in July 2021, ahead of the industry’s fall reopening and before New York’s citywide mandate. Now, almost all Broadway theaters have done away with that requirement – it remains in place at three theaters owned by nonprofit organizations – as the industry becomes one of the last in New York to ease pandemic safety measures.
“Since resuming performances last fall, over five million attendees have seen a Broadway show, and the safety and security of our cast, crew, and audience has been our top priority. Our intention is that by maintaining strict audience masking through at least the month of May, we will continue that track record of safety for all. And of course, we urge everyone to get vaccinated, ”Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway Leaguesaid in an April 15 announcement.
To get through the season, theater owners hired third-party companies to check proof of vaccination as attendees entered the building. Those companies hired contractors to work 90-minute to three-hour shifts, with five or six COVID-19 safety workers assigned outside each show. This attracted a large number of artists, as an alternative survival job.
“Our team is largely made up of lots of actors, stage managers, company managers, all of whom work in the theater,” said Jeff Whiting, president of SwifTest, which provided safety teams for more than a dozen Broadway shows. “Nobody has cared about bringing Broadway back like they have.”
While the outside companies were hired by the theater owners, the cost of their services – which could range from $ 5,000 to $ 10,000 a week at one company – was passed on to the productions.
Working to verify proof of vaccination meant being on the front lines of enforcing the industry’s COVID-19 policies. Workers interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter said patrons in the fall were largely cooperative and excited to return to the theater. This changed as regulations across the country shifted, while the masking and vaccination policies on Broadway remained constant.
Workers said the teams regularly experienced verbal abuse from patrons, which only escalated after New York City dropped its mask mandate in March, with theatergoers at one show crying “COVID’s over. COVID’s over, ”according to a worker.
The number of theatergoers showing up without masks also increased to about 100 people per performance in March, compared to about 20 in the past, according to Craig Buckley, chief executive of Street Meet Promotions, which employed teams at 12 Broadway theaters. The theaters have masks on hand for these circumstances.
Getting proper proof of vaccination and identification for children and elderly patrons was another common hurdle. Still, the teams were often able to de-escalate situations and find a way to safely get patrons into the theater, including finding rapid tests nearby. And workers felt a responsibility to their theater community.
“I would rather have pushback and have mean or unpleasant things said to me, then risk the safety of the other patrons in the house or any staff members or the performers onstage,” said Kayla Walsh, who worked with Street Meet Promotions.
Both the theater companies and the workers knew these positions would likely be temporary. Their next steps depend on the production, the theater owners and how other COVID-19 responsibilities are divided.
Contractors working for SwifTest will stay on at the Shubert Organization‘s theaters to remind audience members to wear masks. Broadway ushers are not contractually obligated to take on this task, though they are not prohibited from doing so.
Some team members at Street Meet Promotions will continue verifying vaccination cards at the American Airlines Theater, one of the three Broadway theaters maintaining the requirement, as well as at a few other smaller venues. Other workers have been offered positions as ushers within the theaters or work with the company’s team in Times Square to hand out flyers to shows.
As a result of recently negotiated protocols, several theaters have also eliminated the position of backstage COVID Safety Manager (some of whom were contracted through SwifTest and some who were employed by the theater directly), according to multiple people familiar with the matter. This role monitored the testing of select staff in the theater and also reminded audience members to wear masks.
Productions still have staff designated to oversee COVID-19 safety in the theater, but no longer need to hire a separate manager who is solely tasked to do so. Broadway cast and crewmembers are required to be fully vaccinated through at least June and are regularly tested for COVID-19.
As the regulations continue to evolve, and unions continue to negotiate, SwifTest, Street Meet Promotions and their workers remain ready to take on the next step of the pandemic.
“At the moment, we’m just standing by waiting for the next iteration,” Whiting said.