DC-area theaters now going off half-masked

Attendance is down, COVID protocols are going their own way, and Theatre Washington and Limelight Insights release new survey on mask-wearing.

Theatre Washington, the service organization for Washington, DC-area theaters, and Limelight Insights by Shugoll, a national marketing research company headquartered in Rockville, Maryland, collaborated on an online survey, open from October 19 to 21, 2022, to better understand theater-goers’ opinions and attitudes toward COVID-19 safety policies at DC-area theaters.

The report shows that among the 2,755 responses from survey participants — representing theater-goers both pre-pandemic and since theaters reopened in the fall of 2021 — theater attendance is down overall and the driving reason is that people continue to have concerns about COVID-19. COVID-19 has had a strong impact on frequency of attending theater. The average annual number of shows attended per year dropped from 7.38 (pre-pandemic) to 4.80 (after 2021). Among respondents who have not returned to theatregoing, two-thirds (68%) report that concern about getting COVID-19 is a very important reason they have not attended. Only 17% of those who have not attended say it is because they do not want to wear a mask at the theater, and only 11% say it is because they do not want to show proof of vaccination.

DCTA graphic

Around half (48%) of audience members surveyed stated a preference for mandatory mask-wearing everywhere in theater venues while about a third (31%) prefer for them to be optional everywhere. An additional 17% of survey respondents would prefer masks inside the performance space but not in the lobby or other areas. Among current attenders (those who have been to the theater since fall 2021), 12% would attend more often if mask requirements ended, while 41% would attend at least somewhat less often. Very few (7%) would stop attending the theater entirely if masks were not required.

“We’ve been tracking the attitudes and opinions of DC-area theatergoers through research and surveys since early in the pandemic and this survey represents another data set,” said Mark Shugoll, senior consultant of Limelight Insights by Shugoll. “At this particular point in time, it’s clear to me that as theatergoers return, they are still cautious about COVID-19 safety and would prefer mandatory mask-wearing when inside.”

Since DC-area theaters reopened in fall of 2021, theaters across the region have united to provide for a high-level of public safety, first requiring both mask-wearing and proof of vaccination in theater venues. The latest update to the unified policy in August 2022 required mask-wearing inside performance spaces, but not in other areas of the building, where food and drink were available. As COVID-19 moves from a pandemic to an endemic, the policies at individual theaters are evolving non-uniformly, based on their own audiences, geographic location, venue size, air systems, consultations with public health experts, and state and federal guidance. From now forth, DC-area theaters will update their policies independently. Theatergoers should consult individual organization and venue websites for the most current information.

“The results of this survey have been shared with our partner organizations as they continue to make challenging decisions about COVID-19 safety policies in their theaters,” said Amy Austin, president and CEO of Theatre Washington. “It’s no secret that DC-area theaters have struggled to rebound since reopening their doors in fall 2021, and face some very difficult decision-making ahead. I feel confident that theater leadership has the best interest of their audiences, artists, staff, and volunteers at the core of their policy decisions, and Theatre Washington will continue to support them through this period. In keeping with guidance from the CDC, Theatre Washington highly encourages the use of masks inside indoor theater spaces.”

“I appreciate the support of my colleagues at Theatre Washington and the collaboration among leadership at DC-area theaters while we have navigated this uncertain time as an industry,” said Neal Racioppo, senior director of marketing and communications at Shakespeare Theatre Company. “It’s been challenging, and I’m pleased that STC has developed protocols that meet our evolving needs. Beginning with Much Ado About Nothing starting November 10, STC will have mask-required performances on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays, and mask-recommended performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. We hope having this option helps serve audiences well. Our theater and community will continue to innovate and adapt in response to public guidance and the needs of our audiences, artists, and staff.”

Survey Methodology and Additional Information
This study was conducted using an online survey sent to subscribers and single ticket buyers at 10 DC-area theaters asked to participate by Theatre Washington. These theaters were not randomly selected and are all large to mid-size theaters in the area. It is felt the views of theatergoers from these theaters should likely reflect those of theater attenders in the area overall. A total of 2,755 surveys were completed between October 19 and 21, 2022. Data are accurate within +/- 2% at a 95% confidence level. The full report is available here. 

Limelight Insights by Shugoll
Limelight Insights is a next-generation Shugoll company. It was developed to serve the ever-changing needs and demands of the marketing research industry, with a renewed focus on online marketing research. As it has become more challenging, risky, and expensive for researchers, clients, and participants alike to engage in in-person research, Limelight Insights has taken online research to the next level by deploying what has already become an industry-leading, video qualitative research platform called Limelight.

Theatre Washington
Through collaborative partnerships and programs, Theatre Washington supports the Washington, DC-area’s professional theater community to celebrate artistic achievement, strengthen the theatrical workforce, support institutional growth and advancement, and cultivate collective action. Theatre Washington’s core programs include the Helen Hayes Awards, Theatre Week, Theatre Summit, Theatre Work, and the Taking Care Fund.

Theatre Washington announces update and extension of COVID policies
(August 10, 2022, news story)
DC theatergoers not yet ready to take off masks, says new survey (March 29, 2022, news story)
It’s still not time for theaters to quit mask and vax requirements (March 22, 2022, DC Theater Arts editorial)
Will COVID safety protocols survive at local theaters? (report by Keith Loria, February 22, 2022)
DC-area theaters unite to extend COVID vax and mask requirements (January 11, 2022, news story)


  1. “Around two-thirds of respondents (68%) report that concern about getting COVID-19 is a very important reason they have not attended.”

    This sentence is inaccurate or willfully misleading. 68% of respondents WHO HAVE NOT RETURNED to the theater give COVID as an important factor. Not 68% of ALL respondents. That’s only roughly 150 respondents out of the full data set which is close to 2800. If they haven’t come back yet, no amount of mask wearing will bring them back to the theater. If you’re still terrified of entering a theater because of COVID at this point I’m not sure there’s much that can be done for you.

    There’s a ton of editorializing by DC Theater Arts and Limelight Insights in the presentation of this study, both of whom clearly would prefer that masks be worn in the theater. When I look at the data, I think the answers are much less clear.

    • Thanks for spotting that inaccuracy. It has been corrected as follows:

      “Among respondents who have not returned to theatregoing, two-thirds (68%) report that concern about getting COVID-19 is a very important reason they have not attended. Only 17% of those who have not attended say it is because they do not want to wear a mask at the theater, and only 11% say it is because they do not want to show proof of vaccination.”

  2. This is outside the scope of this survey, but I wonder how much attendance has been in decline due to monetary issues. It seems like a lot of folks are struggling to bring in disposable income in the US, while ticket prices are remaining the same if not getting higher. That’s a completely anecdotal observation on my part, but I’d be interested in reading an article about how ticket prices in the current economy may be influencing people’s choice to attend a live performance.


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