Why I’m happy to wear a mask to the theatre
I have a confession: I still haven’t gotten Covid-19. Despite the fact that I’ve seen close to 100 shows since live theatre reopened in New York City last summer. Despite me getting a Covid test every time I feel a cold coming on. The reason I think I haven’t gotten it is pretty simple: masks.
Since theatre reopened in NYC last summer, masks have been required for audiences, as well as proof of vaccinations. Even back in March, when NYC lifted its mask mandate and no longer required people to wear masks when they enter public indoor spaces, the New York theatre community kept its own mask rules. For that, I am immensely grateful.
No studies have measured whether masking has prevented theatre lovers from getting the coronavirus, and while there have been headlines about productions canceling performances and Broadway actors missing shows because of COVID-19, there have not been similar headlines for audiences. While the actors are vaccinated, they don’t always wear masks (because of their jobs). But audiences wear masks, and that has made all the difference.
No theatre production in New York has led to a superspreader event. Considering a Broadway show performs to 1,000 people per night, and nearly all of Broadway’s 41 theatres have shows running, that is a triumph for the theatre community.
This is especially notable when you compare it to something like the recent Gridiron Club Dinner in Washington, D.C., where 72 people tested positive for COVID-19 after, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and NYC Mayor Eric Adams. Or Coachella, where there was no mask mandate and many festival-goers left with what has been dubbed “Coachella Cough.”
Masks and vaccines have made it possible for theatres to stay open. They have enabled me and millions of people to see live theatre this season and to feel safe in doing so. Masks haven’t kept NYC from returning back to normal; they have enabled NYC to go back to normal. The city is open, has been open, because of masks.
When I wear a mask on the subway or the theatre, I feel like I’m doing my fellow New Yorkers a favor by not coughing or sneezing on them. And I plan to wear a mask when I go to the theatre for the foreseeable future.
Others may not agree with me, such as the people who call ushers “mask Nazis.” Said one theatre usher: “We’ve all been called some name or cursed at.” Others may ask: Everyone’s going to get Covid anyway, why not just risk it and take off your mask?
I admit I’m lucky: I live alone, and I don’t take care of young children or anyone who is immunocompromised. But that doesn’t mean I want to get sick. As someone who is self-employed, who does not get paid sick leave or paid vacations, every day that I am sick and not working means I don’t make money.
Because I am vaccinated, it is likely that even if I do get the coronavirus, it will be like a cold (though long Covid is a significant risk as well). For me, getting Covid-19 is like swimming in the Hudson River. Sure, it’s something you can do, and you might be okay after — but it’s unpleasant or much worse, so why would you even want to?
If I don’t have to risk it, I don’t want to.
Actors are so vulnerable to becoming infected and missing work because of it. I want the risk — for them, backstage theatre workers, and front-of-house theatre workers who interact with the public — to be as minimal as possible. There have already several cases in the Broadway community: Daniel Craig got Covid, and so did Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Ramin Karimloo, Katrina Lenk, and Shaina Taub (which caused her to miss the opening night of her own show, Suffs). When I saw Company again in April, nine actors were out sick. (Luckily, there were some amazing understudies on.)
The Broadway League says its mask mandate is in place until May 31. After the federal mask mandate was struck down, infections went up again. It’s still too early to completely let these safety measures go, especially when studies show that once public health protocols are removed, reinstating them is much more difficult.
Theatre is a community event. If you go to the theatre, you cannot be selfish. You turn off your phones. You don’t talk loudly when the actors are performing. You don’t take over other people’s arm rests or leg space. To me, masking has become part of the social contract we all sign when we decide to sit down in the dark together, because it ensures the show can go on (and so Patti LuPone doesn’t have to stop her performance to remind you to behave). Being able to see a show at all, and theatre being able to stay open, is more important than my momentary discomfort from covering my face. It’s a small, selfless act, no different than turning off a cell phone.
So if you are going to a show in NYC, check your email for messages from the theatre, which will tell you if you’re required to have a mask and your vaccine card in hand before you enter the venue.
Thank the ushers for making sure we all follow the rules to keep each other safe. No one wants canceled performances or a superspreader event. So put your mask on, enjoy the show, and clap loudly. The artists won’t be able to see your face, but they’ll still be able to hear you.