Florida theaters can’t follow Broadway in requiring COVID-19 vaccines
If you want to see a Broadway show in the next few months, be prepared to provide proof of a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative test.
The Broadway League, which represents producers and theater owners, has announced that all 41 Broadway houses will require vaccines for audience members, with some exceptions allowed, and that masks will be required inside the theaters, following the latest Centers for Disease Control recommendations.
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Theater comes back:Broadway returns to Sarasota’s Van Wezel hall in fall
But there can be no such requirement in Florida when theaters and other performing arts organizations reopen for the start of their 2021-22 seasons.
In May, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that prevents businesses from requiring their patrons provide proof of vaccination, the same law that prompted challenges from the cruise industry. It applies to all private, nonprofit organizations (like most of the state’s regional and community performing arts groups), as well as state and local governments.
Even before the League’s announcement, Bruce Springsteen had returned to Broadway with a vaccine requirement for audience members. Long-running hits like “Hamilton,” “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Chicago” reopen on Sept. 14, with more shows coming through the fall.
Touring productions of many Broadway hits are gearing up to hit the road, including all Florida venues from Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts and Sarasota’s Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall to the Kravis Arts Center in West Palm Beach. Health and safety guidelines for those tours as well as the state’s professional regional theaters will be determined by the latest agreements among producers, presenters and Actors’ Equity Association, which have changed in recent weeks.
Following Equity agreements, Florida Studio Theatre in Sarasota expected to require masks for all audience members attending the play “My Lord, What a Night,” the first Equity-covered show in its summer season. But just hours before the July 2 opening night, Equity agreed to lift the mask requirement and the theater staff informed patrons as they arrived in the lobby.
If the guidelines had not changed, FST would have required masks for Equity shows but not other productions in its five-theater complex that are not covered by the union. The theater still recommends face masks for patrons and requires staff members to wear them when interacting with the public.
Mary Bensel, executive director of the Van Wezel and Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz Center in Tampa, could face similar issues of different rules for different shows with the presentation of union and nonunion shows, if the guidelines change.
For a recent performance by Bill Maher in Sarasota, Bensel said the Van Wezel recommended masks “but most people did not wear them except myself and the staff.” She said safety guidelines could change several times before the Equity shows start arriving in the fall.
Lisi said it is impossible to know today what will be required next weekend, but trying to enforce any mask requirement will be a challenge.
“In the middle of a show are we going to get a hook and pull somebody out?” she asked. “They can ask for masks and it’s impossible to force people, and especially in Florida where there’s a governor who says you can’t ask for vaccine proof. We’re just going to do the best we can.”
The Broadway League has determined that it’s in the best interest of their patrons, performers and theater staffs (as well as their bottom line) to require the vaccinations at least through October.
Exceptions are made for those 12 and younger, who are not yet eligible to receive the available vaccines, those with medical conditions or what is described as a “closely held religious belief.”
Those who are not vaccinated must provide negative COVID test results, and everyone, no matter their vaccine status, must wear a mask in the theater.
In a statement, Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin said because “vaccination has proven the most effective way to stay healthy and reduce transmission, I’m pleased that the theater owners have decided to implement these collective safeguards at all our Broadway houses.” She said a uniform policy that impacts all 41 theaters “makes it simple for our audiences and should give even more confidence to our guests about how seriously Broadway is taking audience safety.”
The Broadway decision is a sign that producers are concerned that audiences, who may be eager to get back and see a show, won’t rush out so quickly without these stringent requirements.
Bensel said Van Wezel is doing “fairly well” with early subscriptions for its Broadway lineup. She expects the much-delayed tour of “Come From Away” will be sold out by the time it arrives in November.
“There is some hesitancy among some people to buy tickets, absolutely,” she said. “I don’t know how we wouldn’t think that. But we can also see that people are really excited to come back to the theater.”
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