Broadway productions and tour operators have set new minimum requirements for COVID-19 testing based on the number of cases in the area.
Productions now use the Covid Act now heatmap to calculate the transmission risk level in each locality to determine the minimum number of tests per week required for company members. However, as cases of coronavirus are occurring in the industry, many Broadway productions test more often than the specified minimums.
The New York City metropolitan area is currently at a high risk level, equivalent to testing at least twice a week for Broadway productions. The same cadence is suggested for medium risk areas.
Severe or very high risk transmission areas have a minimum test frequency of three times a week. An area is considered to have low transmission, requiring one test per week, only if the site has maintained that level in the previous four weeks and there have been no positive COVID cases within the company.
The League has been using the Covid Act Now tool since late October to determine road and Broadway testing rates. The rates apply until the end of 2021.
Use of the tool stemmed from discussions between the Broadway League and Actors’ Equity, as well as their respective health and safety experts. The two sides originally set test standards over the summer, but then continued to make new suggestions as the COVID landscape changed.
“We’ve involved these medical professionals in the conversation and they seem to be most comfortable using this heat map because it’s really completely impartial,” said Anthony LaTorella, the League’s chairman of the labor committee and vice-president of labor relations at the Dutch Organization.
In September, due to the spread of the delta variant, the League had suggested increasing testing levels to twice a week and ensuring that all company members wear masks backstage. So far two productions, “Aladdin” and more recently, “Chicken & Biscuits,” have publicly reported outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the troupe and have canceled performances as a result.
Recent conversations have focused largely on Equity members, as the actors are exposed onstage and therefore at a potentially greater risk of infection. The new test rates are also more of a suggestion than a rule. However, LaTorella said he believes most Broadway productions apply the testing standards to all company members and test at or above the minimum level.
Epidemiologist Blythe Adamson, at work with 13 Broadway productions on its COVID-19 policy, has set a minimum testing standard of three times a week for all its productions. Some of her productions are: test six times weekly.
While Adamson supports using the Covid Act Now tool to set minimums, her own testing frequency is determined by the number of cases in the area and whether there has been a recent positive case in the theater.
“As long as there’s a burden of COVID in the community, I expect people to show up in their workplaces with random people testing positive because they’ve been exposed or infected in their household or community,” Adamson said.
Adamson and her company, Infectious Economics, largely use PCR tests — the majority of which are collected on site and sent to the lab in batches — to identify new cases among cast and crew members. So far, she said she was “really encouraged” by the PCR tests’ ability to identify cases in individuals before they become contagious. Her team uses only antigen testing to confirm already suspected cases of COVID-19.
The League’s new suggestions do not specify whether rapid antigen or PCR testing should be used.
When positive cases are found – Adamson is now working with “Aladdin” and Disney Theatrical Productions, for example – her team is able to perform genomic sequencing on the samples to ultimately determine how and where each individual is infected. This can help her team reshape any health and safety policies.
What is clear so far, according to Adamson, is that high-quality KN95 masks for crew members and for actors, when they leave the stage, are essential for controlling the diffusion within the theater. Her team has also deployed fans and portable air filters to promote better airflow backstage.
While acknowledging the cost, Adamson would like to see these components, as well as the primary use of PCR testing, adopted across the industry.
“My hope would be that over time we would see more alignment with the policies that we see working,” Adamson said.