Backstage COVID Protocols (And How They Have Changed)

Instead of Covid Act Now, Broadway is using CDC’s Community Risk Level Framework.

By: May. 25, 2022
Get Access To Every Broadway Story

Unlock access to every one of the hundreds of articles published daily on BroadwayWorld by logging in with one click.

Existing user? Just click login.

Backstage COVID Protocols (And How They Have Changed)

Much publicity was given to the Broadway League's decision to cease requiring vaccinations to enter a Broadway theater, but less attention was given to the behind-the-scenes changes that were implemented around that same time. They do not include changes to the vaccination requirement -- Broadway union members still must show proof of vaccination. But there are some other changes that impact the lives of your favorites.

When MOULIN ROUGE actors took the stage masked this week--in advance of the completion of the 10 day isolation period--many thought a new change in policy allowed this. That is not the case. Since last year, actors have been allowed to go back before a ten-day isolation period is complete. But there are requirements. A person may leave isolation five days after diagnosis and resume activity on the sixth day or after if (i) they are symptom-free (based on the CDC Covid symptoms list); (ii) they test negative on an antigen test taken on or after Day 5 before returning to work; and (iii) for the subsequent remainder of the 10-day period following Day 0 (the day of diagnosis) they must, at all times, be able to wear a well-fitting KN95 or KF94 mask. The third factor is why most actors spend the entire ten days out -- they don't want to perform in masks and their producers don't want them to perform in masks. In the case of MOULIN ROUGE it looks like it was worth it to everyone to have the actors come back, which likely will ensure no additional performances are cancelled.

But there are changes that were revealed in just this last round of policy alterations. As an initial matter, the Broadway community guidelines are based on Covid spread levels. That makes sense -- just as the public's mask guidelines might change as community risk changes, so it happens backstage. The Broadway League had been using Covid Act Now, which is a non-profit that was created to measure Covid levels, to judge what the risk level was in the area. Now, instead of Covid Act Now, Broadway is using CDC's Community Risk Level Framework--which designates areas as "Green," "Yellow" and "Red"--as a basis for its protocols. While the League declined to participate in this story, on a recent video call with Association of Theatrical Press Agents & Managers (ATPAM) members, producer Amy Jacobs of Bespoke Theatricals called the CDC guidelines, which update every Thursday, "more flexible." Minimum masking and testing guidelines change based on the risk level. Right now, Covid Act Now, CDC Guidelines and New York City's own guidelines have risen to the highest level of danger, or the "Red" zone. But early last week, Covid Act Now and CDC had New York County in "Yellow," while New York City's own metrics already pegged it as high danger. So there is some different in the systems.

Epidemiologist Dr. Blythe Adamson--who is currently working with Lincoln Center Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company and FUNNY GIRL among others--explained to BroadwayWorld in a recent interview that each of the three major metrics was aiming at the same thing. "All of them are trying to appropriately measure when it is sufficient for public health policy to be able to relax or tighten to be able to achieve the behavior changes we want," she said. For the shows she works with, Dr. Adamson uses her own algorithms and statistics to recommend protocols.

Performers, musicians and crew members are no longer required to wear masks backstage when New York is in a "COVID-19 Community Level" of "Green." Anything above that requires masks unless it is incompatible or interferes with their job responsibilities or part of the performance. In "Yellow" KN95s, KF94s or surgical masks can be worn but in "Red" no surgical masks are allowed, just KN95s and KF94s. This is unless a particular production requires more; any production can.

But, in a recent call with BroadwayWorld, Equity spokesperson David Levy said the changes most important to Equity's members weren't related to masking, but were related to changes in sick days and testing.

The prior guidelines were created before the world fully understand that you could get Covid multiple times. This created a huge problem for those backstage. Under the prior protocols, you got eight performances, except you were required to isolate for 10 (if you weren't able to resume work masked). Currently, actors and stage managers who contract Covid and are required to isolate, shall receive sick pay for the number of performances required to be missed up to a total of twelve performances per occurrence or as may be required by applicable law, if greater. Sick pay is to be paid at contractual salary, up to $4,000, for the first five days of performances missed and at the applicable minimum salary thereafter. So it never goes above $4,000, even if the actor is contractually paid more if working.

This is different from New York State law. New York State law currently provides that employers with 11-99 employees must provide up to five days of Covid sick leave for required isolation periods for up to three occurrences of a positive Covid test result, to be paid at the employee's "normal rate of pay," and employers with more than 100 employees must provide up to fourteen days of Covid sick leave for required isolation periods for up to three occurrences of a positive Covid test result, to be paid at the employee's "normal rate of pay."

The musicians, represented by their union, Local 802, agreed to abide by New York State law. So musicians employed by individual productions, which typically employ under 100, likely have five days of sick leave at normal pay for up to three occurrences of Covid. IATSE, the stagehand's union, agreed to have its members receive an additional 10 days at the applicable minimum salary. And Equity--which has a large range between star salaries and ensemble salaries--is as stated above. Each of the major unions went with different strategies. Not only are the number of days/performances different, but you see differences in the amount of pay: whether it is subject to a cap for a certain amount of days before switching to minimum (Equity), whether it is at normal pay (Local 802) or whether it is minimum salary throughout (IATSE).

"It was more important to the unions that they had more days than people stay at their contractual rate," Jacobs said on the video call. "Sorry, Hugh Jackman, you're not getting your full salary for the entirety of the ten days."

In terms of testing, like masks it is based on the "Green," "Yellow," "Red" metric. In "Green," the employer is only required to provide testing when the employee is exposed to Covid in the workplace or has symptoms of Covid, except that for actors who have to be unmasked onstage the production must provide no less than one test per week. So picture it this way -- if a musician comes to a stage manager and says: "Yesterday, I was at a party where everyone had Covid. Can I get a test?" The production no longer has to provide that test -- they can say to the person "we recommend you get tested" and that is it. If the person was exposed at the workplace, a workplace-provided test is required. At "Yellow" the production needs to require testing a minimum of two times per week and at "Red" three times per week.

Also, there is another nuance--an outbreak can happen inside a theater independent of what is going on in the community and then testing and masks up outside of what is going on in the outside world. If within five consecutive days, there are five confirmed new Covid positive cases within the regular Equity company, crew and musicians, then for a period of fourteen calendar days starting with the day of the fifth confirmed Covid case the producer has to move to testing on each workday and require KN95 or KF94 masks at all times, except when doing except when doing so is incompatible with the job (like when they are onstage performing).

The tests administered under the guidelines can be any FDA-approved tests, including at-home rapid antigen tests. For her shows, Dr. Adamson only uses PCR tests, however, and she says the science backs up her approach. "In January, I put out a paper that has been read more than 100,000 times about whether rapid antigen tests can pick up someone as positive in the first couple of days of infection, and what we've found is they don't," she explained. "You can keep testing rapid antigen negative for two or three days when you're infected and passing it to other people. So if what you're trying to do is prevent a super spreader from performing onstage then a rapid antigen, even daily, is not going to do that."

Note that some shows test more than the minimum and sometimes that means they not only have to pay for the tests, but also the time it takes to administer the test. If the show opts for onsite testing, Equity members can be called 30 minutes early to their call as many times as testing is required under the mandated protocols. If your show does more, the additional over the minimum counts toward rehearsal time (and therefore may result in additional pay). IATSE and Local 802 members can be called 15 minutes early once a week. Any more is billed.

Now here is the other change that Equity members are excited about. "Members were very happy to take the test at home," Levy said. "What they were less happy about was waking up early to submit a test." Productions had been requiring tests super early -- as there was no universal guidelines. Now, as Levy put it, "members get the appropriate time to sleep."

For Equity members, if the employer gives at-home tests, they don't have to pay the actor for the time spent taking them, as long as the deadline for submitting proof of tests is no sooner than 12 hours from the end of the prior show, except for days with matinee performances, in which case the deadline for submitting proof is no sooner than 10 hours. So, basically, curtain comes down at 11pm, you have to 11am to submit the testing proof, unless there is a matinee, which requires you to submit by 9am.

A lot of these changes are in the "saving money" category. Producers had complained that COVID-19 protocol costs were running than tens of thousands of dollars per week. And this at a time when many shows are not doing as well as they may have done pre-Covid. One of the costs that particularly riled producers was the need for an onsite Covid Safety Manager that had being a Covid Safety Manager as a sole job. This person is the one who orders the masks, coordinates testing, monitors mask compliance, answers questions about protocols and more.

Now, if the county is in "Green" or "Yellow," there needs to be a Covid Safety Manager--and that stuff still needs to get done--but the person can have another job on the production or simply be offsite. The person must be on call and able to get to the theater if needed, but can be anywhere sort of near the theater. Conceivably, in good times, productions could share Covid Safety Managers to save costs. But, when New York County hits "Red" or there is a mini-outbreak in the theater, all bets are off. The production is back to needing an onsite Covid Safety Manager who is focused solely on safety. So, if productions are sharing, they'd need to hire (or rehire) in bad times. (Remember New York County was not in "Red" when these guidelines were put into place, but now is.)

These guidelines are in place through June 26. Before then, more negotiations will take place and new guidelines will be decided.

Dr. Adamson says all the productions she works with have been going "above-and-beyond" the minimum requirements and are generally happy to do so.

"Shows following the science are seeing less cancellations," she stated.

And all the union members spoken to said they are simply happy to be back at work. Within reason, they are willing to do whatever is necessary to keep putting on a show.

"I watched Tiger King and ate Doritos during the pandemic," one crew member said. "That was my only job. Now I at least get to do the job I'm trained for. If I have to do it in a mask, I will."