Broadway shows missed nights and some shows nearing the end of their runs ended them early because too many cast members—including understudies and swings—were unavailable. Radio City canceled most of its run of their annual Christmas Spectacular citing “Increasing challenges from the pandemic.” The New York City Ballet ended its winter run of Nutcracker performances early “due to a number of additional positive test results for breakthrough COVID-19 among people involved in the production.”

Against this background and the dramatic surge in infections due to Omicron, performing arts organizations are tightening their requirements for attendance.   The Metropolitan Opera announced that, starting in mid-January, it will require that audience members provide “ proof of a Covid booster shot for all those eligible to receive it.”

Over in Germany, Berlin has mandated that Performing Arts organizations require proof of a complete Covid-19 vaccination or recovery (2G) and a daily negative test certificate. The test results must be from within 24 hours for an antigen test or 48 hours for a PCR test. Attendees must also wear FFP2 masks. (FFP2 are the equivalent of N95 masks here in the States.)

Back here in NYC, the Public Theater is also requiring negative COVID test results for theatergoers. On Tuesday, the Prototype Festival announced it is also imposing masking, vaccination, and testing requirements for its performances running January 7 -16. PCR tests must be done within 72 hours and antigen tests within 12 hours.

Their guidelines state that the COVID tests must be “administered”, meaning, I assume, that home test kit results are insufficient. Currently, it’s pretty much impossible to find home test kits and It’s unclear to me how you would prove when you took a home test, even if this was an option.

While mandatory COVID tests might be feasible in Berlin which has a large network of free COVID test centers that work by appointment, I am more dubious about the practicality of this in the US where there are limited free testing options and many test centers can only provide PCR results in 1-2 days which makes timing a test in order to attend a performance very challenging.

In my neighborhood in Manhattan, the COVID testing center near me that works by appointment offers a rapid antigen test for $39.95, a rapid PCR test for $99 and a PCR test done in a lab for $85. The lab results helpfully take 1-3 days which make them useless for attending performances (and most anything else). Also,that facility only does tests on weekdays.

I currently have tickets for Prototype performances and the timing of my attendance requires multiple PCR tests or rapid tests. Putting aside the expense—which will greatly exceed that of the tickets themselves—I am not sure I have the fortitude or time to go get tested multiple times over the course of a week when I’m in meetings for work for much of the day.

While the volume of people seeking tests may have fallen off with the end of holiday season, it’s a lot to ask ticket holders to carve out time during the work day for tests particularly if they have to wait for an hour or more in the cold in a line of people with COVID symptoms.

The only way I think this could be workable would be to partner with the City to offer tests outside of the performing venue itself. That way tests can be free and a set of slots —ideally by appointment—can be set aside for attendees while serving the broader community. I’d much rather get to a venue an hour early than find another hour during the day for a test—especially if I can grab a quick bite (safely, of course) while I await my test results.

I realize I put others at risk if I travel to the venue while COVID positive, but I would only do so if asymptomatic and with a properly fitted N95 mask. I would probably do an at-home test—if I could find one—before even deciding to leave.

Surprisingly, the Prototype Festival was offering tickets to post-performance dinners with festival artists as recently as yesterday. The dinners were sensibly canceled . Given the current state of the pandemic, I wouldn’t want to share a table with strangers and would definitely not share a table with strangers whose PCR test is three days old.

All performance arts organizations are facing difficult choices right now and the prospect of any additional government assistance is non-existent. If the public health experts think testing should be mandatory, then good for Prototype for taking swift action. However, performing arts organizations can’t impose all the logistical complexity on their audiences.

Also, attendance will inevitably be down while Omicron rages. Streaming options have to be considered. Heartbeat Opera did this for their Christmas show and I happily paid for and watched a show that I would not have attended in person.

I would also pay to watch the Met Live in HD offerings on demand a few days after the matinee performances rather than waiting months for them to show up on the Met’s on demand service or PBS. Contracts with their distribution company may prevent this, but I can’t imagine that the Live in HD Shows are selling any tickets at all right now

We all want performers and performing arts organizations to make it through this endless pandemic. For that to happen, continuing performances in the matter that is safe for artists and audiences is essential.

That goal will require:

  • Funding from government and donors to help defray increased expenses and lower ticket sales,
  • Apartnership between theaters and public health departments to make testing for audience members less onerous,
  • Plentiful supplies of free at-home tests, and
  • Streaming options for those who can’t attend in person

We will be dealing with COVID variants for the foreseeable future and it’s time to get this infrastructure in place.