Everything’s Coming Up …. COVID?
“The good news is…..” If I hear this expression one more time relative to COVID, I will scream. I have a family member who loves to say this every time the topic comes up – which for me is constant. It is inescapable. It has infiltrated my family’s lives in a way in which, I think, many others have not experienced.
You might think, ‘well isn’t COVID part of everyone’s life now?’ I would say, unequivocally, no. Because everywhere I go, I see people behaving as if there is no pandemic (endemic?), whether by lack of social distancing, large, indoor social gatherings, or refusal to comply with mask mandates. My personal favorite - the combo - someone not wearing a mask who is hanging on top of me while I stand in line waiting to board the ferry for my daily commute to the city. BACK. OFF. Ugh.
It is not lost on me how incredibly fortunate I am to be currently working a show. Many of my friends and peers who suffered the brutal 18+ month shutdown have yet to return to steady work. But life on Broadway looks a whole lot different than it did two years ago. (Please note my use of ‘Broadway’ also includes off-Broadway productions and is meant to encapsulate the New York City theater community at large.)
Upon returning to Little Shop, things looked good, and we were optimistic. All involved were (and remain) vaccinated and masked, and risk was very low. There were only two “breakthrough” cases in the first few months. We were PCR testing three times a week at first; then two, then only once (supplemented by at-home antigen testing twice a week). Then Omicron hit.
“The good news is…..” it appears to be a much less severe form of the virus. Yes, this is great news for people’s health and safety, as well as for the performers who are singing through shows eight times per week over six days. Not sure if you have read the stories of those who struggled through COVID earlier on, and still report issues singing because of the strain and damage to their lungs. Yes, that’s a real thing. (This speaks to the point of this affecting us in ways it doesn’t the average person.)
However, our reality is that shows will still cancel performances due to COVID outbreaks within the company (this includes actors, musicians, stage managers, crew – everyone involved in the show). The Broadway League has issued guidelines around this, and the CSMs (Covid Safety Managers, which all theaters must employ), along with company management, make determinations about the need for canceling a show. One positive test doesn’t necessitate a cancelation; however, if it is determined that enough people were “directly exposed” and a significant risk has been identified, the show will cancel, “out of an abundance of caution”.
Some shows have experienced widespread outbreaks throughout the company. This can cause the show to cancel for extended periods, as oftentimes, there are simply not enough healthy people to cover all the tracks (roles). Anyone in the company who tests positive MUST be out for ten days. Period.
“The good news is….” it appears there will not be another mandated shut down of Broadway. While that may be true, it doesn’t mean that our show and our livelihood aren’t hanging in the balance every minute of every day.
Let’s look at some numbers, speaking mostly conceptually at this point. We know we have millions who are unvaccinated. They cannot buy tickets to shows. The current adult population in the US is 331,400,000; approximately 30% of whom are unvaccinated, which is 99,420,000. We now have over one million people who, just yesterday, tested positive. We know they cannot come to the show, so …. over 100,000,000 are not even eligible ticket buyers to Broadway shows. (For the record: I am 100% in favor of vaccination requirements and mask mandates for patrons. It provides the safest possible environment for our audiences!)
Let’s take a deeper dive.
Since the wildfire-like spreading of Omicron, Broadway has ramped up testing. Additionally, masks are required at all times other than while in front of an audience. (Masks have always been required in the building, but actors could leave their dressing rooms and walk to stage unmasked. Musicians could unmask in their chair. Not anymore.) However, shows are still being hit hard with breakthrough cases. Most shows have added some extra “swings” – people who are able to cover a variety of tracks in the show - to cover for those forced to quarantine due to infection. (Shout out to these extraordinary humans – how on earth do they DO THAT??! Such incredible talent!) And some shows have STILL had to cancel performances!
Let’s take a deeper, deeper dive.
When you have a chair as a pit musician (meaning, you are the one hired to be the primary person on that instrument), you are responsible for bringing on subs to cover for you in the event you fall ill, have another gig or just need a day off. Some of these absences are planned, but some can be very last-minute; you can get stuck in the tunnel during your commute, have an emergency at home or not feel well. At the end of the day, it is YOUR responsibility to be certain the chair is covered, and the show is protected (meaning, it can run in your absence).
The nature of subbing is that it is part-time – you are occasionally called in to cover. But many subs work on a number of shows, in addition to being teachers, clinicians and performers in other settings (fly-dates, etc.); point being, they are not sitting home waiting for your call.
Let’s now factor in COVID. Should I (God forbid) test positive, I cannot work for ten days. The show must then rely on my subs to cover the show. I have one sub who covers about six other shows; one who teaches full-time and is busy with freelance work; one who had planned to be out of town for at least a week around the holidays and another who had been exposed to COVID at home and needed to self-quarantine. My point is, there is NO guarantee that someone will be available to cover the entirety of your required absence… in which case, the show couldn’t run.
I trust you can now understand why I have no patience for people infringing on my personal space (especially when not masked) or breaking the law by refusing to comply with mask mandates on public transportation and why I refuse to participate in any indoor gatherings; I won’t eat in restaurants or drink in bars because I cannot remain masked and protected; I ride outdoors on the ferry in the dead of winter (to avoid said law-breaking patrons who ride unmasked).
Let me be clear: I am not a “snowflake”; I do not “live in fear” of getting COVID; I am acting out of a sense of responsibility to my show and co-workers; I am willing to do anything to help us to continue to run; I am desperate to avoid being out of work again because of this virus; I am dedicated to my craft and my profession. Would I love to attend birthday parties? Dine in restaurants? Celebrate the holidays with family? Finally go to Spain on our honeymoon (which was canceled in 2020)? Have date night with my wife? Of course. However, these are the decisions we are compelled to make.
Based upon the above numbers, the obstacles with keeping a show healthy and running and the additional burden of keeping a pit chair healthy and staffed are extraordinary. It is challenging, at best, during this climate to keep shows open and thriving.
Many of the COVID deniers talk about “freedoms” and “rights”. Well, where are MINE? Don’t I have a right and the freedom to choose to stay safe and employed? (Side note: Don’t we also have an obligation and responsibility to help protect each other? And what about these poor emergency medical workers who are overworked and inundated?!) Where do your “freedoms” end and mine begin? Seems like an incredibly selfish and myopic point of view from where I’m sitting.
My indignation seems to grow tenfold daily. I feel isolated and alone, not because of my actions and choices, but by the lack of empathy, indifference, and entitlement of so many. I witness it multiple times, daily. It is frustrating. It is infuriating. It leaves me deflated and helpless.
Then I walk into the Westside Theater and play Little Shop of Horrors and I am reminded why it is all worthwhile.
Thank you to those who not only took the time to read this, but to all who continue to support live music and theater. We need you now more than ever and appreciate you more than you know!