Broadway theaters will be allowed to drop their mask mandates starting July 1, the Broadway League announced Tuesday.
The League described the new policy as “mask optional,” and said it would be re-evaluated monthly.
“Our theater owners have been watching the protocols, watching admissions to hospitals, watching as we have no issues across the country where tours are mostly not masked, and they decided it was time to try,” said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League. “This is not an easy decision – there are more people that want masks off than on, but plenty still want them on – and we’re encouraging people that have any concerns to wear their masks.”
St. Martin said the theater owners would continue to meet weekly to assess the health situation, and are open to reimposing the mandate if necessary. “We’re going to see how it goes,” she said.
Broadway had maintained fairly restrictive audience policies since theaters reopened last summer. The theaters required patrons to show proof of vaccination until April 30, and have continued to require patrons to wear masks except while eating and drinking.
Broadway’s public health protocols have taken on an outsize role in the performing arts, as many other institutions have taken their cues from the big theaters. Broadway theaters imposed a vaccine mandate before New York City did the same for restaurants, gyms and other indoor performances, and then maintained their rules long after the city stopped requiring them.
Mask wearing became part of the theatergoing experience this season: sign-wielding employees walked the aisles reminding patrons of the requirement, and reminders to wear masks were added to the usual preshow announcements about turning off mobile phones and banning photography. When theaters first reopened, some did not sell food and drink to avoid interfering with mask-wearing; the consumption of refreshments now provides a noticeable loophole for those who do not like wearing masks.
Some other performing arts venues, including many Off Broadway theaters, continue to ask for proof of vaccination and to mandate masks, and public transit in New York continues to require masks indoors, although compliance is dropping. But many other corners of society, including domestic air travel, have dropped mask mandates and conditions in the city seem to be improving: Mayor Eric Adams said Tuesday that the city’s Covid-19 alert level had moved from high to medium.
There are currently 27 shows running in Broadway’s 41 theaters.
The four nonprofit organizations that operate six of the Broadway houses hung onto vaccine mandates longer than the commercial landlords who operate the majority of the theaters. But none of the nonprofits currently has a show running on Broadway, and none plans to resume producing on Broadway until after Labor Day.
Roundabout Theater Company, which is scheduled to begin performances of a Broadway revival of “1776” in September, plans to evaluate its protocols monthly, according to a spokeswoman, Jessica Johnson, who said it is too soon to determine the rules for this fall. The nonprofit is continuing 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 soon to know what their safety protocols would be then.
Public reaction to the mask-optional policy was, predictably, polarized, with some cheering what they saw as an overdue step, and others ruing a retreat they viewed as reckless.
Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, a frequent Broadway theatergoer as a Tony voter and professor of theater studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said he would continue to wear a mask while seeing shows. “It’s important, when you have people packed that tightly together, to control the flow of airborne germs at a time when we do not know what the long-term effect of Covid is going to be,” he said.