Broadway Theaters Shut Down As New York Governor Bans Gatherings Over 500

“I don’t want to see Broadway go dark if we can avoid it,” Bill de Blasio said. Photo: Busà Photography/Getty Images

As the coronavirus continues to spread in New York City and the world, shutting down numerous cultural attractions and events, Broadway too will close. New York governor Andrew Cuomo announced the decision Thursday afternoon, instituting a statewide ban on gatherings over 500 people. For Broadway specifically, Cuomo’s announcement said, the rules will go into effect at 5 p.m. tonight, effectively shuttering future performances for the time being. For gatherings under 500 seats, which would cover Off Broadway events, the governor said that occupancy must be reduced to zero to 50 percent capacity.

While Cuomo did not put a timeline on the shutdown, producers and theater owners in the industry organization the Broadway League said that performances would resume on the week of April 13, just after Easter Sunday. Those holding tickets for performances up to April 12 are advised to contact their point of purchase for refunds and exchanges.

“Our top priority has been and will continue to be the health and well-being of Broadway theatregoers and the thousands of people who work in the theatre industry every day, including actors, musicians, stagehands, ushers, and many other dedicated professionals,” Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, said in a statement. “Broadway has the power to inspire, enrich, and entertain, and together we are committed to making that vital spirit a reality. Once our stages are lit again, we will welcome fans back with open arms so that they can continue to experience the joy, heart, and goodwill that our shows so passionately express every night.”

Several Off Broadway venues are also suspending performances. The Public Theater has announced plans to cancel all events and performances through April 12. Lincoln Center Theater is closing one Off Broadway production, The Headlands, and suspending another, Intimate Apparel, until April 13. Ars Nova will suspend performances of Oratorio for Living Things and closing its offices, promising that staff and performers will continue to get paid.

Previously, according to Deadline, the Broadway League had called an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the possibility of closing productions until Easter Sunday, April 12, in order to limit the spread of disease. That would amount to a cost of more than $100 million in ticket sales, Deadline estimates, though now that the government has forced the Leagues’ hands, producers may be able to appeal to insurers to cover some of the cost.

The shutdown comes during one of the busiest times in the theater season, right before the Tony Awards eligibility deadline. More than a dozen Broadway productions were either in previews or scheduled to open by the end of April, the standard awards deadline. The Tonys are yet to make a statement, but this suspension will inevitably change that timeline. Some shows may not return at all, given the cost of remounting a production, and constraints of cast scheduling.

Broadway was one of the major New York industries that was the last to hold out amid other coronavirus-related closures. Mayor Bill de Blasio, in an interview on CNN earlier this morning, said that he was developing guidelines that will include “more restrictions” in the city, including some form of limiting Broadway audiences, though Cuomo stepped in before de Blasio acted. “I don’t want to see Broadway go dark if we can avoid it,” de Blasio said. “I want to see if we can strike some kind of balance. What we’re trying to figure out, is there a way to reduce the capacity, reduce the number of people? If we cannot strike that balance, of course, we can go to closure.”

As of this morning, 62 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in New York, including one usher who worked at the Booth and Brooks Atkinson theaters, currently home to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Six, respectively. Both shows still went on last night, and the houses are being subjected to rigorous cleaning (Six was set to open tonight). Before the shutdown, the Broadway League had instituted more aggressive cleaning policies in theaters, and recommended that shows cease stage-door activities.

Broadway attendance figures for this week won’t be released until the end of the week, but anecdotal evidence suggests attendance had already fallen steeply. Disney’s tourist-driven productions already saw sales flag last week, and a typically packed show like Moulin Rouge! was available at a discount through TKTS. In the first major response from a Broadway producer, Scott Rudin cut prices for several of his show, including West Side Story and Virginia Woolf, to $50 on Tuesday. He also put out a statement that echoed some of the language that had been applied to the good of theater during other crises like 9/11, claiming that New York’s “beating heart remains the Broadway stage” and that this is an “unprecedented opportunity for everyone to see a show that they otherwise might not have had easy and affordable access to.” The lower ticket prices went into effect noon today.

The feeling that the show must go on (until it can’t) was echoed by several established industry insiders who spoke to Vulture before the shut down, and one that de Blasio himself spoke to in his interview. But those sentiments have been criticized for callousness amid a fundamentally different kind of crisis than 9/11, which demands social distancing to slow the spread of a virus. New York theater’s audiences tend to be older than the average, and thus disproportionally at risk. “I’m less concerned for our cast members and more concerned for our audience members who are packed in like sardines,” one actor currently in an Off Broadway show told Vulture. “Shutting down is inevitable and I’m worried that we’re just waiting for numbers to skyrocket while our hospitals become overwhelmed.” Similarly, Actors Equity put out a statement criticizing de Blasio’s response for putting performers at risk.

Underneath it all, there are, of course, the financial incentives. Producers weren’t likely to get insurance to cover the cost of closing shows without the government forcing a closure. Now that it has, one major question that persists is how an industry that earns $1.8 billion a year and employs hundreds of thousands will recover from a shutdown of this magnitude.

This is a developing story.

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Broadway Theaters Shut Down As NY Governor Institutes Ban