At its pre-premieres in June, the New York Classical Theater was only allowed to perform “King Lear” outdoors for up to 75 spectators. These guests were socially distant on picnic blankets, wore masks and could not eat or drink during the game.
That same month, Foo Fighters played a full capacity show at Madison Square Garden in front of 15,000 vaccinated fans. Few wore face covering; no one was obliged to do so.
As New York and the rest of the country begin the slow journey back to what resembles a pre-pandemic life, rapidly changing protocols across the state and across the country have created vastly different environments in theaters, music venues, and sports arenas as venue operators seek to balance the lingering coronavirus concerns with their business plans and their customers’ desire for normalcy.
The different approaches to venues, perhaps just a few miles apart, have led some cultural officials to speak of head shaking and a feeling of whiplash.
“There’s frustration,” said Stephen Burdman, artistic director of the NY Classical Theater. “Things weren’t communicated well.”
In mid-June, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo lifted most of the state’s Covid-19 restrictions after 70 percent of New York City adults received at least one dose of the vaccine, essentially clearing the way for most of the rooms to do what they want – at least as far as the state is concerned. The state does not require a place to check a person’s vaccination status; and in all but the largest indoor events, the policies of masking and social distancing are now at the discretion of the people performing the performances.
Many venues have tried to create an environment with as little reminder of the pandemic as possible. When Bruce Springsteen heralded the return of Broadway last month, he was playing in front of a crowded St. James Theater with 1,721 scantily masked, vaccinated fans. In the outdoor amphitheater on Little Island, more than 600 people have gathered on curved wooden benches – few of them wear masks.
And at Feinstein’s / 54 Below, officials pointed out that attending vaccinations has an added benefit: guests don’t have to wear masks when enjoying drinks, dinner, and a show.
“Safety is paramount,” said Richard Frankel, one of the venue’s owners. “After security, we want people to feel comfortable and happy.”
For example, if you want to visit the off-Broadway sound experience “Blindness” in the Daryl Roth Theater, you no longer have to fill out a health questionnaire or have your temperature measured. However, the venue continues to require that theater viewers be socially distant and wear face covering.
The public theater is one of those institutions that have been looking for a middle ground.
Officials announced in early June that they were planning to only allow 428 people to attend each performance of the acclaimed Shakespeare in the Park, citing state rules as the reason they had to impose such strict visitor restrictions. On June 24th, the public announced that the Delacorte Theater would significantly increase the capacity of the Delacorte Theater for its free performances of “Merry Wives” to 1,468 seats as the state lifted its restrictions.
“The governor’s decree to lift restrictions recognizes a beautiful reality: we are finally starting to recover from Covid-19,” said the public’s artistic director, Oskar Eustis, in a statement.
Now the Delacorte has both “full capacity” sections for those presenting full vaccination records and “physical distance” sections for others. Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, must wear a face mask at all times when entering the theater and when moving. Whether spectators have to wear a mask while seated, however, depends on the area in which they are seated.
Art officials also need to grapple with city and union rules that are created to ensure that performances are safe. Although the New York Classical Theater performs outdoors, it has still had to adhere to the restrictions of its city park permit and the Acting Union, which sets the rules by which its members can operate.
The theater’s city permit for pre-premieres in June put a cap on the number of spectators, though city officials say the cap was lifted on July 6. The rule the theater followed in masking the audience was established by the Actor’s Equity union. The union said the rule was only in effect until early June, although Burdman said he hadn’t been given any updates to the rules until June 30.
Burdman said he was reluctant to detail his pandemic-related benefit rules during an interview in early July, fearing his understanding would be out of date by the time an article is published.
“To be honest, things change so quickly, I don’t want anything to go to press and not meet the requirements,” he said. “Nobody is completely clear.”
When asked about the current state of affairs on Friday, Burdman said the rules had finally become clear. The audience no longer has to distance themselves socially or wear masks, they can eat and drink again during performance times and the capacity limits have been reset to a normal level.
Frankel said the speed of change has also overtaken Feinstein’s efforts to create a beautiful, well-organized safety manual. His employees began compiling the data back in April 2020, but had to be updated so often over the course of a year that it was almost immediately obsolete at the time of going to press. “It was such a beautiful document,” he complained.
Large indoor venues have to follow somewhat stricter government guidelines. People who provide proof of vaccination no longer have to wear masks or distance themselves socially in such places. However, unvaccinated individuals must show evidence of a recent negative coronavirus test to be admitted and must wear masks inside.
“It’s a bit overwhelming to be around people again,” said Molly Wissell, 31, of Virginia as she waited to go to the Foo Fighters concert at Madison Square Garden last month. “Standing in line and not putting on our masks makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong.”
A crowded concert-goer in the stands openly boasted that he had been admitted, despite saying he was not vaccinated.
About an hour earlier, Battery Park’s Marianna Terenzio, 30, said she was glad there were rules restricting participation in the show.
“I think it’s good that they ask people to show proof of vaccination,” she said. “I definitely feel safer.”
Michael Paulson, Julia Jacobs and Jon Caramanica contributed to the coverage.