Editors’ note: DCMTA’s recent editorial urging the continuation of COVID safety policies in local theaters — “Now is no time for theaters to quit mask and vax requirements” — has had an overwhelmingly positive response. We follow it with this report on what theaters in the DMV are planning to do. And we invite readers who wish to express their opinion or share more information to do so as a comment below.
Now that Washington, DC, Mayor Muriel Bowser has lifted the mask mandate, with businesses no longer required to have patrons and staff wear masks beginning March 1, 2022, and proof of vaccination no longer required in entertainment venues, there’s obviously plenty of concern about COVID in the area.
Both Virginia and Maryland lifted their statewide mandates several months ago, but some local jurisdictions still require mask-wearing, though that’s likely to change soon as well.
Still, just because masks aren’t required legally and vaccination statuses don’t need to be checked anymore, it doesn’t mean DC-area theaters are just going to drop the safety protocols that have been working for them and keeping audiences and performers safe.
Edgar Dobie, the executive producer at Arena Stage, notes there are no plans to change that theater’s masking or vaccination protocols, which have been in place from the start of the season and were instituted to keep all patrons, staff, creatives, and volunteers protected.
“We will still require proof of full vaccination — a physical card or electronic representation — and masks while in public spaces within the Mead Center,” Dobie says. “Since the start of the pandemic, we have worked closely with advisors from GW Hospital Emergency Medical Faculty Associates, who guide our safety plan. We have been, and continue to be, mindful of compliance with not just local regulations and CDC guidance but also all collective bargaining agreements for actors, directors, choreographers, and musicians.”
If the advisors at GW change their guidance while remaining consistent with local and union requirements, only then would Arena Stage adjust its plan accordingly.
That holds true for Studio Theatre as well, as the DC venue continues to require that all patrons, staff, and artists who enter the building wear masks and be vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic, Studio has looked to local, federal, and union guidelines to help shape its in-house safety precautions.
“We are paying attention to local changes to these regulations and will make adjustments to our policies as we determine it is safe to do so,” says Studio’s executive director Rebecca Ende Lichtenberg. “We understand the desire to return to pre-pandemic theater and see that things are beginning to open up, and want to be thoughtful about how we do that so we don’t put anyone at undue risk.”
As the public health impacts of COVID-19 continue to trend in a favorable direction, and as government and union officials update their guidelines, some theaters are considering following their examples, so things could change by late spring.
Laura Giannarelli, board president for the Washington Stage Guild, has been happy with the way its guidelines have let the theater safely navigate its first two shows of the season.
“Specifically, we will maintain our requirement that all guests to our theater wear masks and show proof of vaccination at the door,” she says. “We are following AEA guidelines in doing so, in addition to complying with our landlord’s health and safety requirements. Our landlord — Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church — is firmly committed to maintaining the vax and mask requirements and is unlikely to relax their requirements for the immediate future.”
While Giannarelli plans to reevaluate monthly, she admits the rest of the season will likely maintain the mask and vaccine mandates for the protection of the audience and company.
Alyssa Sanders, producing partner for Avant Bard Theatre in Arlington, notes that the theater operates out of a county facility — Gunston Arts Center Theater Two in Gunston Middle School — so it must follow county mandates.
“Should the county change its policies, Avant Bard’s producing partners will take in the new information and make decisions accordingly,” Sanders says. “For now, all patrons must show proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours before the performance they plan to attend. All patrons must wear masks and no concessions will be sold at performances.”
Signature Theatre is participating in the unified COVID-19 safety requirements in partnership with Theatre Washington and many area theaters and will assess the policies moving forward.
“As in the past, this coalition will look at guidance from local jurisdictions, the CDC, and our partner unions (such as Actors Equity) when making any decisions,” says Jennifer Buzzell, director of marketing at Signature. “We will also look at what other live entertainment venues are requiring as well as what our audiences want. Research we are doing with our audiences shows that the vast majority of them want to continue mask and vaccine mandates.”
GALA Hispanic Theatre also is maintaining its COVID-19 safety policy, which requires masks and proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test within 72 hours of showtime. If a change occurs, GALA will let patrons know on its website.
Some theaters have been noncommittal about their plans and others admit that they are wavering on what to do come March and April, with a couple not willing to comment about what their actions might be once the mask mandate ends. One even noted off-the-record that it would probably start allowing maskless entry very soon.
We all hope that COVID rates continue to decline and no new variant takes hold, but jumping the gun on changing what has been working in theaters just doesn’t seem like the most logical move right now.
Stay informed on theaters’ latest safety protocols on their websites, which most update weekly or whenever there’s a change.