Asked whether Cuomo’s announcement took people in the theater world by surprise, one theater insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment emailed back: “YES. EVERYONE.” Other representatives of cultural institutions and Broadway productions contacted by The Washington Post said it was too soon to disclose changes to their plans.
Reopening commercial and nonprofit theaters on Broadway and off- is considered a core activity for restoring New York City’s financial health. Broadway alone accounts for about 100,000 jobs and pumps about $14 billion annually into the city’s economy. Still, as the reactions to Cuomo’s announcement made plain, the runway for theater to take flight again is a fairly long one. Casts and crews must be assembled, financing arranged, rehearsals commenced and perhaps most important, tickets have to be sold in advance. Marketing campaigns for major Broadway shows can cost millions of dollars.
Some theaters in other cities have already announced ambitious plans for a return to live performance this fall. In Washington, for example, the Kennedy Center last month unveiled a vast Broadway-caliber roster for its 2021-2022 season beginning in October with the regional debut of the Tony-winning “Hadestown.”
Cuomo’s decision comes as the number of coronavirus cases continues to decline statewide — though health officials still characterize the risk of exposure in the state as very high. New York’s daily average of new cases is about 3,400, with roughly a third of the state’s residents fully vaccinated. That translates to 9 million residents having received one vaccination and 7 million at full immunization.
In a tone vastly more upbeat than the dour, cautionary demeanor of his previous public pronouncements, Cuomo said coronavirus positivity and hospitalization rates have substantially decreased over the past month. “Today is a milestone for New York state and a significant moment of transition,” Cuomo said, adding that New York has a higher percentage of adults vaccinated than any other highly populated state.
“This is a major reopening of economic and social activity,” the governor said. Among the other indoor spaces that will see restrictions lifted: retail stores, offices, gyms, and hair salons and barber shops. Bar curfews will be eliminated, and the New York City subway system, on a truncated schedule since early last year, will return to 24-hour service on May 17. The plan is being coordinated as a tri-state reopening with New Jersey and Connecticut, Cuomo added.
The Broadway League, the trade group representing Broadway producers and theater owners, applauded the announcement. “We look forward to reopening at full capacity and are working to safely welcome audiences and employees back to Broadway theatres this fall,” the group said in a statement Monday.
The one caveat Cuomo offered was that New York would continue to follow the six-feet social-distancing guideline mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How that would pertain to the affected businesses, the governor said, would depend on how each venue differentiates between the vaccinated and coronavirus-tested public and those who are not vaccinated. In other words, a theater or arena might drop the social-distancing requirement if it decides to grant priority access to those who are immunized or can show a recent test.
“If the CDC changes their guidelines,” Cuomo said, “we’ll change our guidelines.”
It is unclear to what degree the governor is getting ahead psychologically of the public. A poll this spring by the market research company Morning Consult, for instance, indicated that a majority of respondents were not ready to return to movie theaters. And how much the governor’s own political and personal travails may have factored in the unexpectedly rapid reopening is likely to be a subject of speculation. In recent months, several women, including former aides, have come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against Cuomo. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) is overseeing an investigation regarding the accusations.