Universal masking and high-quality ventilation can mitigate the risk of Covid transmission in live performance venues, but Covid safety has been slipping over the past months. James Wenley audits the measures that theatre venues across the country currently have in place, and argues that the live performance sector needs to take a stronger lead in promoting public health.
Let’s start with some good news. Following mass cancellations due to New Zealand’s Omicron outbreak at the beginning of this year, our theatre and performance venues are back to hosting a steady stream of live shows.
On some nights in June you were hard pressed to find a spot at Auckland’s Civic Theatre carpark with the Chess musical concert at the Aotea Centre, The Big Sing at the Town Hall, Indian Ink Theatre Company’s Krishnan’s Dairy and Mrs Krishnan’s Party at Q Theatre, and Doc Edge Festival at The Civic.
But we’re hardly back to our pre-Covid days. For one thing, audience numbers aren’t back to pre-Covid levels (although there’s some good ticket deals out there!). For another, it is a rare show indeed that hasn’t had to deal with some form of Covid interruption over the past few months: cast and crew isolating during rehearsals; finding covers for cast and crew (there’s been some heroic stand-in performers appearing on stage with scripts in hand and other last minute switches recently); or even having to cancel performances due to Covid infections in the company. On top of this, there’s an acute worker shortage in the arts, with crew roles difficult to fill.
Meanwhile, Covid cases, hospitalisations and deaths are on the rise in Aotearoa. A winter wave of Covid (driven by new Omicron subvariants) and flu cases are putting intense pressure on the health system, compounded by chronic staffing issues. New Zealanders are beginning to deal with the reality that you can be reinfected by Covid-19 multiple times. We’re also seeing the effects of Long Covid (symptoms lasting three or more months after first contracting the virus, and that people didn’t have prior to infection).
So when Covid continues to pose a very real threat both to the arts sector specifically, and our health system at large, why does it seem like Covid is being treated as no big deal in many of our live performance venues?
Masks (preferably respirators) are one of the most effective measures to reduce the risk of Covid transmission, but mask wearing by audience members in performance venues has been incredibly patchy. Under the Government’s Orange traffic light setting, masks are encouraged at indoor events, but aren’t compulsory.
On the one hand, audience members are making their own personal decisions about the level of risk they are willing to tolerate. On the other, arguably we all could be doing more to help reduce transmission, and venues could set stronger expectations around mask use and other safety measures.
Troubled by some recent experiences I’ve had in theatres and the growing winter wave of cases, I reached out to a number of venues to find out more about the Covid safety measures and messages they have in place.
In this article, I audit the various approaches undertaken by theatre venues operating under the Orange setting, and make the case for Aotearoa’s performing arts sector to strengthen its Covid safety approach. Ethically and financially, we cannot afford to be complacent.
Learning to live with the virus
I’ll lay my cards on the table. Over the first half of this year I was very Covid cautious – I didn’t want to get sick or have to isolate whilst I was teaching a university theatre course that would culminate in a live performance season. I tested Covid positive at the end of the process in June. While the shows went ahead (with no further positive cases), I went into isolation.
I was knocked about by the virus. Over a month later, I still have a cough and my throat seizes up if I talk for a sustained period. I lowered my defences for the first weeks after coming out of isolation, but I want to avoid reinfection as best I can. As Siouxsie Wiles notes, “with each infection, you roll the dice that could lead to long Covid, disability, and long-term health issues.”
I believe that as a society we should be doing more to reduce Covid transmission and look after each other. Just because we’re told the world has moved on from Covid (a dubious claim), doesn’t mean we here in Aotearoa should drop our precautions. Long Covid looks set to be an ongoing health challenge. Around 16 New Zealanders are dying from Covid-19 per day, which on the current trajectory would average to 5,000+ deaths per year. As Professor Michael Baker points out, this would be more than 10 times New Zealand’s road toll (as well as 10 times NZ’s annual rate of flu deaths). I believe that this potential death rate is unacceptably high, and we can and should be doing more.
Our medical experts argue the Government should adopt a Vaccines Plus approach to mitigate the spread of Covid-19: good vaccination coverage is complemented by effective public and social health measures like universal masking and strengthening air quality.
Professor Michael Baker advocates for Aotearoa to become a mask wearing society until we get through the worst of Covid. He says we should wear masks for the foreseeable future in indoor environments, “but basically it means you can get on with life.”
Learning to live with the virus isn’t about ignoring it, but taking sensible precautions to reduce risk and protect yourself and others around you.
Theatre under Orange
When Aotearoa moved from the Red to Orange settings under the Government’s Covid-19 protection framework in April 2022, a number of Covid safety measures were dropped. Gathering limits and physical distancing limits were scrapped. Vaccination passes were no longer required. While we may have had a highly vaccinated adult population, Omicron was adept at getting past immune defences. Masking was the main safety feature left.
But with the Government’s message that masks are encouraged but not required in most indoor settings, many people opt not to mask up in our live performance venues.
While I was trying to avoid Covid, I began to feel increasingly unsafe attending shows, despite continuing to mask. Sometimes I’d find myself surrounded by unmasked patrons. Anxiety would take over my chest, and I’d find it difficult to stay focussed on the show (yes, I could leave, but seeing shows is part of my job). If any of these unmasked people happened to be infectious with Covid, I would be increasing my own risk of infection. There is a reasonable chance someone in a theatre of 100 people might unknowingly be infectious, especially when there is a high prevalence of Covid in the community.
I didn’t feel that I had consented to this. With movies you can decide to wait for it to go up on the streaming platform, but with theatre you generally don’t have this choice – you either go to the show, or you miss out (return seasons aren’t guaranteed). Still, I limited what I was going to see – some shows just weren’t worth the increased risk.
Following my own infection, I went to some larger shows I might not have otherwise gone to, and also had the opportunity to do some regional comparisons. At the opening night of The Wedding Singer at Wellington’s Opera House the majority of the audience went unmasked. At the performance I attended of Chess at Auckland’s Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre at the Aotea Centre, I was part of a distinct minority wearing my mask. With the large audience capacity and extended duration, it seemed reckless not to have greater mask wearing in these venues. Still, the audience choice was understandable. People saw what others were doing, and matched the behaviour.
I sat in for a few performances at Q Theatre’s Rangatira stage and the ratio of non-masks to masks was consistent: by my observation, fewer than one third of the audience wore masks at each performance, despite masking being required at this venue.
Things were very different at Basement Theatre next door. While the low roof and packed house gave me pause, mask wearing was pretty much universal. A contributing factor was the pre-recorded announcement – the best of any venue I’ve heard. The announcement emphasised the necessity of wearing a mask, for the safety of the audience, and the performers, who were putting themselves at a higher risk by performing without masks. We were told we could lower our masks to sip our drinks, but to put them back up afterwards (BATS Theatre has a similar announcement). At both a Māoriland film screening in Ōtaki and at Wellington’s Gryphon community theatre venue, the mask reminder was given a personal touch with a staff member/volunteer standing in front of us to deliver the message. Whether pre-recorded or live, without fail, people would reach into their pockets and bags and put on their masks during these announcements.
While ASB Waterfront Theatre might have had signs scattered about informing patrons that “face masks must be worn at all times unless eating and drinking”, mask wearing was mixed inside the theatre and there was no pre-show announcement. There were no signs or announcements at Te Raukura ki Kāpiti, yet mask wearing was pretty good (about two thirds masked) – most people walked into the venue wearing a mask, and others matched this behaviour.
I went to a few venues in Wellington following the Government’s latest traffic light review and Minister Ayesha Verrall’s appeal to “keep up good mask wearing, especially over the remaining winter months where the virus is more likely to pass in indoor settings.”
Masking at children’s shows at Circa Theatre and BATS was pretty good (shout out to the kid who put a mask on in response to BATS’ pre-show announcement!). Masking at Te Auaha was dire – fewer than a third of us were wearing masks. There were zero messages about masking inside the foyer of the newly reopened St James, run by Venues Wellington, but I was pleasantly surprised that about two-thirds of the stalls audience were masked for closing night of Wellington Opera’s La Traviata (with a lead cast member returning to the season following isolation).
I’ll be honest, it’s been incredibly confronting when I’ve been in the mask-wearing minority at shows. You might even be reading this and thinking I’m over-egging the issue.
So I did the arts thing and tried to put myself in someone else’s shoes to understand why people who can wear a mask might be less concerned with wearing a mask to the theatre.
What’s happening in performance venues reflects what is happening in society at large. Mask use has weakened across the board, and mandates were dropped in schools (although schools that kept them have had much better outcomes!). There was a political message that following vaccinations we’d just need to get on with it, and there was little we could do against the virulence of Omicron. People are fatigued and want life to go back to pre-Covid times. Many people will have had the virus (about half of New Zealanders according to some estimates) and adjusted their risk settings accordingly – it is only recently that the Ministry of Health has advised that reinfection can occur within 30 days.
I’ve heard anecdotally of people who have said they won’t attend a show if they are required to wear a mask. Masks have become politicised, and some people will believe that being directed to wear a mask is an encroachment on their personal rights (although this ignores the risk not wearing a mask poses to others if you are infectious unknowingly).
I also acknowledge that masks can make attending live performance a more uncomfortable experience. For some people, having a drink during a performance is an essential aspect of feeling at ease in a theatre, and masks can get in the way of that. Food and drink sales are also an important part of a venue’s bottom line, helping to subsidise the art. The pre-show announcements from Basement and BATS balance this well.
However, notwithstanding people who have a genuine mask exemption, universal mask wearing makes it safer for all of us.
Surely a degree of discomfort is an okay ask to make performance venues a safer environment for audience, performers and venue staff?
Who’s going to the theatre?
I have a theory: there are two groups of people who are going to the theatre at the moment.
The first are people who aren’t too concerned about Covid presently, for the reasons outlined above.
The second are people who know they are increasing their risk, but really want to attend and support a particular show – maybe there’s a performer they really like, or they’re a big fan of the writer. They might also value the boost attending live performance can bring to hauora, health and wellbeing.
There’s a third group, but they aren’t going to the theatre at the moment. They’re actively managing their Covid risk, and this activity is just not worth it.
We can throw in a fourth group too. They’d attend if they could. They even purchased a ticket. But they can’t go. They’ve got Covid.
Venues and performing companies have certainly noticed the nightly churn of audience members who can’t attend because they are isolating as household contacts or positive cases. Christchurch’s Little Andromeda has just moved to a ‘self-serve refunds/cancellations’ system, explaining, “we’re SUPER happy to cancel tickets (thank you so much for keeping your sickness at home!) but shit they’re coming in thick and fast right now, and when we’ve got staff down with covid too it’s just getting physically difficult to keep up with all the refunds.”
I’ve spoken to people in some of the venues I’ve visited recently who told me the show we were at was the first they’d been to all year.
Venues with poor masking and safety measures are opening themselves up to another kind of risk – that people in the second group will see that performance venues aren’t as safe as they could be at the moment, and won’t come back.
Performer and producer Jennifer O’Sullivan, who has campaigned for mask wearing in venues, offers this perspective: “It all reminds me of the resistance to developing and implementing codes of conduct. This idea that by talking about and insisting on changing behaviours to keep people safe that the art is going to suffer, or we are going to lose people who don’t want to comply. I would argue right now we’re losing people – practitioners and audience – who are at risk, and just like with COCs I’d rather lose the people who don’t care for others around them.”
What do venues say?
I contacted 11 theatre venues/organisations across Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Te Papaioea Palmerston North, Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington, and Ōtautahi Christchurch inquiring about their Covid safety measures. The venues range in size and function, including boutique venues, programmed venues, venues for hire, and council-controlled venues. I have compiled the following tables based on responses and information on venue websites (a few organisations had not responded with answers by the end of the week):
|Venue||Mask policy and promotion||Air quality and CO2 monitoring||Other Measures||Covid Info on Website?|
|Auckland Live venues including Aotea Centre, Bruce Mason, Civic Theatre |
(Statement by Richard Clarke Director, Arts, Entertainment and Events Tātaki Auckland Unlimited)
|Masks are encouraged. “In line with the Governments Covid-19 Protection Framework, all of our customer facing staff are required to wear a face mask and we encourage our patrons and visitors to do the same.We use a variety of channels to reinforce this message, including promotional and pre-show emails, venue signage, website, and front of house teams.”||“Our HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) systems meet regulation standards.”|
Did not say if monitor CO2 levels.
|“We also ask patrons and visitors to sanitise their hands before entry, and to maintain a one-metre distance from our staff and others. We acknowledge that COVID-19 transmission commonly occurs in closed spaces and that a well-managed system may have a complementary role in decreasing potential airborne transmission of Covid-19. To address this, during events where there are back to back sessions we regularly purge the air in the theatre and foyers throughout the day to increase the amount of fresh air coming into the venues. We also have increased cleaning presence in our venues.”||Yes|
|ASB Waterfront Theatre (Auckland)||Masks are required.|
“All patrons receive an pre-show email advising “Face masks – we require everyone to wear a correctly fitted mask at all times except when consuming food and beverage”. This message is also on our website. We have signage at our doors advising that masks are required, and our ushers have signs they display in the auditorium pre-show with this message. Our concierge staff ask patrons who arrive not wearing a mask if they have a mask and if not, provide them one to wear.”
|“We have an HVAC system which is less than 6 years old and well maintained. The fresh air system is also controlled with the use of CO2 sensors that ensures good ventilation is provided.”||“– Enhanced cleaning.|
– All our customer facing staff are required to wear correctly fitted respirator masks – eg P2, KN95 or N95
– Hands-free sanitiser stations at entry
– Introduced a Peace of Mind ticketing policy – “Purchase tickets with complete confidence knowing that if you are unable to attend as a result of COVID-19 you can exchange for another performance or get a full refund”
– Rapid Antigen Testing is available to all our staff and contractors
– Auckland Theatre Company artists and crew RAT test regularly during rehearsals and in-season”
|Basement Theatre (Auckland)||Masks are required in all indoor spaces, patrons are “welcome to remove them when seated to drink and eat!” |
This “is communicated throughout our booking process, as well as at multiple points in the venue on the night of the event. The most effective of these has been a pre-recorded message which plays in the performance space before each and every event.”
|“We’re ensuring our performance spaces are manually ventilated between shows where double billing does occur, to ensure there is fresh air for each performance.”|
Do not monitor CO2 levels.
|“We know that our performance spaces are higher risk due to their size and lack of mechanical ventilation. This is part of the reasoning that led us to keep the vaccine pass mandate in place, and why we have stronger requirements for visitors to be masked than you may see at other venues.”|
No longer selling physical tickets at the venue to limit congestion in the foyer.
|Q Theatre (Auckland) |
[Did not respond, information sourced from website]
|Masks are required in the theatre.“All patrons will be expected to wear a mask for the duration of performances and mask-wearing is strongly encouraged in the Q Lounge and foyer.”||Website does not specify.||Website does not specify any further measures.||Yes|
|PumpHouse Theatre (Auckland)||Masks are encouraged. “We have free masks available (and branded masks on sale to support The PumpHouse). Patrons are asked to bring their mask when they book and when they receive tickets.”||“We have a fairly new air-conditioning and air extraction system which is on at all times there are people in the theatre.” Do not monitor CO2 levels – “it’s not been a concern.”||“The key things are encouraging patrons who are sick to stay away and either refunding tickets or transferring to new dates, providing masks and hand sanitiser to anyone who needs them, all staff wearing masks when working with the public and anti-viral cleaning between every performance of every seat. These measures aren’t new – they’ve been standard for a while.”||No. No notices about masks or Covid-safety measures, including at point of sale.|
|Centrepoint (Palmerston North)||Mask wearing required for current production. “We have a sign above the door to the auditorium and will be showing a video on our foyer screens showing how to wear your mask and enjoy your drink. The wearing of masks is communicated at point of sale and will be added to our website (we update on the rules constantly – they change all the time) We have spare masks at the theatre at our cost. Our FOH team must wear masks when working with the public.”.||Do not monitor C02 levels. “We do however use a fogger with disinfectant after performances as a measure, we don’t know the extent of the effectiveness of this as yet.” |
Did not specify if any further ventilation is in place.
|“We separate our actors from the FOH team and from the administration staff. The production team do not mix with the admin team. The FOH team regularly use disinfectant on all surfaces and hand sanitizer, there are several hand sanitisers in the foyer for public use (our cost).”||No – but website currently features a banner notice that mask wearing is required|
|BATS Theatre (Wellington)||Masks are required in all spaces (unless eating, drinking or you are exempt). |
“Mask wearing encouragement is displayed on our BATS facebook page. Our response plan is available on the landing page of our website, ticket holders are emailed out information about our protocols along with their tickets, we have signage up upon entry to the building, as doors are opening for performances box office staff include a mask wearing request in their doors opening announcement, there is more signage up upon entry to the theatre spaces and we have another pre-show announcement in the theatre spaces pre-performance starting.
In response to the recent cases we’ve increased our comms and added a mask wearing protocol graphic to the home page of our website and included this in our BATSmail as well.”
|“BATS Theatre has a HVAC system that is less than 10 years old that has been well maintained|
on a regular basis. We are equipped with an air conditioning system that is well equipped to
minimise any airborne infection.
BATS air conditioning system has a C02 monitor functionality. We typically sit around 400-1000ppm in our Dome and Stage spaces.”
|“RAT testing is something we require performing artists to do daily if a case is identified within their team and they want to/are able to continue their season. If the show is considered too high risk then the season is canceled or rescheduled if possible, although rescheduling is getting more difficult as we are still rescheduling performances affected by the pandemic the past couple of years.”||Yes (10 page Covid response plan)|
|Circa Theatre (Wellington)||Masks are required unless eating or drinking. |
“Circa’s requirement to wear a mask is posted on the website, on posters around the theatre, at point of sale, and also reinforced by pre-show announcements.”
|“We are confident that we have adequate ventilation in our theatre and rehearsal spaces.”||“There’s a strict cleaning system. Circa contractors and volunteers are all vaccinated. Access outside of public areas is restricted to contractors and SVPs. Programming has ensured that audiences for either Circa 1 or Circa 2 are not sharing public spaces at the same time.”||Yes|
|Venues Wellington (Includes Opera House, St James Theatre, Michael Fowler Centre, TSB Arena) |
[Did not respond, information sourced from website]
|Masks are encouraged.||Website does not specify||“Staff and visitors are encouraged to adopt best practice health and hygiene habits i.e. washing hands regularly. An enhanced cleaning schedule in place, including frequently disinfecting all high touch surface areas (door handles, light switches etc.) using hospital grade, long lasting disinfectant.”||Yes|
|Little Andromeda (Christchurch)||Masks are required in the theatre (“only briefly removing to take a sip of a drink”). “We have a strict mask policy. Until a month ago, we would announce to the audience that the show will stop if people have their mask off for a prolonged period of time. Since June, we have toned it down just a fraction and|
– Our covid page on the site says the dress code is a mask in the theatre
– Our 48 hour reminder email talks about the requirement to wear a mask in the theatre
– We remind patrons as they enter the theatre that it’s a mask on policy
– Just before most shows start we do a spiel to the audience and say “We have a dress code here, mask wearing inside the theatre. Even if you feel safe etc, it’s to make everybody else feel safe.”
|“We have pretty powerful fresh air ventilation.”|
Do not monitor CO2 levels.
|“Performers encouraged to do RATs before each performance (given they aren’t wearing masks), constant messaging about “please stay home if you have any sickness symptoms” alongside a very flexible refund policy (we will always refund you if plans change or you get sick).”||Yes|
|Court Theatre (Christchurch)||Masks are encouraged. |
“Messaging on website and on all preshow emails contains a Covid-19 section which strongly encourages mask use while on-site; signage around the theatre and on entry door asks people to please wear a mask.
|“Our ventilation system cycles fresh air into and through the auditorium regularly.”|
Spokesperson was unsure if CO2 levels are monitored.
|“Staff need to have current vaccine passes; wear masks in public spaces; regularly air out office areas; we have WFH options for anyone who feels at risk or is at all unwell. |
Cast and crew are required to RAT regularly and frequently; we have employed swings and understudies for most of our own shows, to ensure cast are covered if unwell.”
|Yes (although takes a few clicks to find)|
The above table demonstrates a wide range of approaches by these venues under the current Orange traffic light setting. I note that the Covid guidance on the The Entertainment Venues Association Of New Zealand (EVANZ) website has not been updated since 2021, so industry standards are currently lacking. Let’s look closer at some of the findings:
Masks: While four of the organisations adopt the ‘masks are encouraged’ wording in line with the Government’s Orange setting, most of these venues require masks to be worn in the theatre as a condition of entering their business. Some venues (notably the boutique venues BATS, Basement and Little Andromeda) are very good at communicating their mask message across the website, ticketing, venue and pre-show announcements, while others (especially the Auckland and Wellington council-owned venues) could step up their game here.
Michael Bell reports that Little Andromeda achieves near 100% mask wearing:
Over the last month we’ve stopped singling people out that take their masks off, but we also hope everybody else in the theatre has heard us essentially saying “if you care about other people you’ll wear a mask” and for them to subsequently take it off after that (and all the other messaging leading up to the fact) is a pretty bold statement about themselves. At this stage it seems to make business sense to make sure the majority of people feel safe, as it appears we’ll lose more customers if we don’t have a strict policy, and it also feels like it makes the most moral sense to prioritise looking after the people who are looking out for others too.
Other venues gave mixed reports about mask use in the venues. PumpHouse’s James Bell says “the vast majority of customers are happy to wear their mask throughout the show (or remove to eat/drink and then put back on)”. Vanessa Preston on behalf of ASB Waterfront Theatre says “generally patrons are respectful of our policy.” Basement Theatre’s Helen Sheehan comments, “generally audiences have been very amenable to our requests to wear a mask, particularly in performance areas, however, we have more recently noticed that visitors to our venue don’t expect to need to wear a mask, for instance when ordering at the bar, reflecting the decline in mask use seen generally in public spaces.” Court Theatre’s Julie McCloy acknowledges that masking has been “very patchy” and “many people are choosing not to wear them.” Centrepoint’s Kate Elliott notes that mask wearing hasn’t been as good as it could be, but this is something the venue can’t police, understandably noting that “we can’t put our front of house staff at risk of abuse from patrons.”
Air quality: On the whole, many of these venues appear to have good air quality and ventilation systems in place. However, few of the venues include details of these air quality measures on their websites.
Only one of the venues, BATS, was able to provide details of CO2 readings. RNZ’s Farah Hancock explains that “CO2 levels can be used as an indicator of the risk of catching Covid-19; we breathe in air and release CO2 when we exhale…High CO2 levels don’t automatically mean you’re going to catch Covid-19 – there has to be infected particles in the space, but they can indicate poor ventilation and a likelihood of high particle levels.” RNZ undertook CO2 checks in a number of indoor spaces, including a movie theatre. At the start of the movie RNZ took a reading of 1140ppm, the equivalent of 1 in every 52 of your in-breaths consisting of air other people have exhaled. A good indoor reading is anything below 800ppm. BATS’ air conditioning unit handily has a CO2 monitor, and BATS report this typically sits between 400-1000ppm in its Dome and Stage spaces.
Basement Theatre was transparent that ventilation in their space could be vastly improved: “Our landlord, Auckland Council, is keen to provide us with mechanical ventilation, however, due to the significance of this work and the cost involved, will be undertaken during other significant work that is planned for our building in the next few years.”
Other measures: While venues did not generally publicise ventilation measures, many of the venues highlighted enhanced cleaning practices as part of their Covid response. While cleaning and hygiene is important in general, venues need to be careful of putting on their own “hygiene theatre” show – Covid spreads through the air, with very little evidence of any danger from surfaces. Cleaning the theatre between shows is all fine and good, but the priority needs to be the safety of the airflow during shows.
It is good to see some venues including ticketing flexibility and refunds as part of their Covid measures, encouraging patrons to stay home if unwell (although this has financial impacts). We also see RATs being encouraged for staff and performers.
Basement Theatre was the only venue that still had a requirement in place for all visitors to hold a current vaccine pass, “though we don’t check these, opting for a high-trust model instead. We have been open about this being an interim stance until our wider community is comfortable removing the requirement entirely. We do not expect to remove this requirement until after the expected winter surge.”
Keeping performance Covid Safe
A March 2021 study modelled Covid transmission within a movie theatre hall and found the risk could be mitigated if venues used “return air filtration or all fresh air operations, and when audiences are sitting in separate seats and wearing masks.” The researchers determined that using return air with filtration and all-fresh-air operations decreased the probability of infection by 39.8% and 55.6% respectively compared with non-filtered return air. Significantly, they found that if all the audience wear masks then “the probability of infection can be reduced by 93.7%”.
While this was a pre-Omicron study, and each venue will have its own contexts, these findings chime with the message from experts: masking and good ventilation in all indoor spaces vastly reduces the risk of transmission.
So here’s what our performance venues could focus on to mitigate Covid risk:
- Empower a culture of mask wearing at the venue. This includes messages on websites, ticketing information emails, and signs at the venue. Set the expectation that masks should be worn.
Using the psychological nudge theory, we can understand that we will usually go for the easiest option (eg, not to wear a mask) rather than a harder one, even if we recognise it is better for us long term (eg, wear a mask, reducing the risk of catching or passing on Covid). So introducing a series of small nudges can help encourage more widespread masking.
Pre-show announcements offer a further nudge, and are most effective when explaining why mask wearing is desired (to protect audience and performers) and how to manage beverages (keep your mask on between sips). Pre-show announcements that reinforce positive masking behaviour can also take the burden off lower paid venue staff having to ‘police’ mask use. Some people may still choose not to wear a mask, but a series of nudges is more likely to lead to a greater uptake of masking.
Michael Bell has a strong perspective about masking at Little Andromeda:
Yes, I much prefer it when the audience is maskless. The laughter you hear as a performer is so much better. It’s more comfortable (physically) without a mask on and it makes it easier to watch a show. I absolutely cannot wait to get rid of masks. However right now it seems the choice is get everyone to mask up or become a super spreader and lose audience members who can’t afford to get sick, so let’s all get masking now so we can get back to watching shows in comfort, without masks AND without covid, sooner.
- Ensure good ventilation and airflow in the venue.
This is especially important for venues with high occupancy and limited spacing between audience. Venues could do a better job of publicising the air quality systems they already have in place. Implementing regular CO2 monitoring would help well-ventilated venues demonstrate their low risk, and help audiences make a more informed decision about attending poorly ventilated venues. Ensuring superb air quality in our venues has long-term benefits beyond the pandemic too, helping lower the risk of spreading other viruses.
- Continue RAT surveillance tests for venue staff and performing companies and groups.
With performers necessarily going unmasked, in smaller venues it is reassuring to know that performing companies and groups are able to test and are taking good Covid precautions (especially since loud talking, singing and physical exertion are higher-risk activities for spread).
There’s a role for performing companies and groups using the venues to advocate for good practice Covid safety measures, and to promote these to their audience through their channels. However, with the inherent power difference between groups and venues, the burden shouldn’t solely fall on the hirers. You can play your part as audience too, giving feedback to your local venues about your experience of the Covid safety measures that are in place.
With universal masking and high-quality ventilation, there is no reason why attending live performance can’t be one of the safest indoor activities you can partake in. (And let’s do more outdoor events in summer months!)
I asked the venues what further support from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage and the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment would be helpful to improve Covid safety. The main response was access to reduced cost or free RATs and high-quality masks. BATS’ Kristin Burns explains that: “Ideally KN95 masks or similar would be great for us to offer performers and our FOH and technical staff as the most at risk in our organisation (we do have these for staff already, but again they come at a cost). RAT tests and masks for performing artists would make a big difference to artists to ensure they are able to maintain COVID safety protocols during their season without an impact on their bottom line.” (While the Government is increasing the availability of free RATs and medical masks for individuals, the Government has made it clear these are not for businesses.)
Michael Bell says, “the hardest thing is just being left to make our own rules and police them.” Bell would like to see clearer guidance around official mask exemptions, “as we just have to take people’s word for it and I reckon it sucks for the people who have genuine reasons they can’t wear masks that people who can’t be bothered spoil it for them…It’s also just a strange coincidence how people with mask exemptions often seem to travel in groups of two to four, and that whole groups have mask exemptions.”
Professor Michael Baker has called for a mask mandate in some settings: “You go to one social event, and everyone’s wearing a mask, and so you feel comfortable. Next day, you go to a different one, and no one’s wearing a mask, except you, and that feels a bit odd. We need to get rid of those inconsistencies.” Michael Bell argues that if the Government made “an official rule that masks have to be worn in theatres (rather than a recommendation), then we would feel so much more empowered when telling people they have to wear masks.”
But the live performance sector can’t wait for the Government.
With rising cases, hospitalisations and deaths, we cannot afford to be complacent. Professor Baker warns that “high rates of transmission and infection will mean more deaths, more long-term health impacts, and continued strain on the health sector.”
The live performance sector needs to step up and play its part in continuing to promote good public health measures.
With the lockdowns and isolation we have experienced over the past 2.5 years, the arts have a healing role in bringing us together. It is vital that we continue to bring people together as safely as we can.