When “Pass Over” begins previews Aug. 4, the production will require audience members to provide proof of vaccination.
The policy comes after careful study from lead producer Matt Ross and Dr. Blythe Adamson, an infectious disease epidemiologist hired by the production to oversee safety protocols. Together, Ross, Adamson and the production team have established COVID-19 prevention measures, ranging from pooled testing of company members to the employment of a COVID safety manager, they hope can provide a model for the industry in the months ahead.
Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s “Pass Over” is the first play to begin performances on Broadway after the shutdown and the second show overall, following the June 26 return of “Springsteen on Broadway.”
“We know that there’s going to be a microscope on us both in the industry and from the public,” Ross said. “And so we want to demonstrate that we can do this safely, both backstage and for audiences, and in the rehearsal room.”
Like “Springsteen on Broadway,” the production will accept proof of an FDA or WHO-authorized vaccine for entry. Theatergoers under the age of 16 or those who are unable to be vaccinated will be required to provide proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.
Masks will be required while audience members move within the theater, but not while seated — a time which presents very low risk for transmission of the virus, Adamson said. This is, in part, due to increased ventilation at the August Wilson Theatre. These policies are currently in place for performances in August and set to be re-evaluated as the run continues.
The production has also set safety protocols for its three-person cast and its crew members, which Ross said have been approved by Actors’ Equity. The union and the Broadway League have not yet announced an agreement on industrywide protocols.
Ross and Adamson, a former member of the White House coronavirus task force, spoke with Broadway News about the production’s protocols, the new position of COVID safety manager and the rise in the Delta variant.
Broadway News: ‘Pass Over’ began rehearsals on July 7. What are your safety protocols for cast and crew?
Matt Ross: We’re a fully vaccinated company, and vaccination is a condition of employment for our show. So our policies take that into account, but then we still have testing, mask wearing [while not actively in a scene] and cleaning. Our COVID safety manager does contact tracing.
BN: How often are you testing?
Ross: We test cast and crew and anyone who sets foot in the rehearsal room, backstage, or anyone in the theater who interacts with them. We’ve been testing a minimum of twice a week. We work with a great lab in Brooklyn called Mirimus, which does pooled PCR testing [which tests several samples together, using the resources of one test] So, we have benefits of the accuracy of PCR testing, done in a way that is efficient and affordable to our production and really at any scale.
BN: Can you talk more about the role of the COVID safety manager?
Dr. Blythe Adamson: This is a full-time person who’s first in the room, last out of the room. They are monitoring who’s in the space and the test results, doing some of the supplemental cleaning, ensuring that the ventilation and airflow plans are in place and working and writing daily reports. These reports provide us with documentation so that if there were a positive case, among the cast or crew, we know exactly who was around and for what durations and what proximity. They are also available to identify and respond to anyone who may experience any COVID-like symptoms. One of the challenges for anyone returning to work in any office space is that COVID symptoms are very diverse, and it can even be something as simple as a headache.
These are often people who had been in theater roles like stage manager that are now trained specifically for this role of being a COVID safety manager. I’m actively training an army of COVID safety managers for theater.
BN: What would happen if there were a positive case? Would the show have to shut down?
Adamson: The show does not have to shut down, and it’s one of the benefits of having a fully vaccinated cast and crew. The new CDC recommendations say that if vaccinated people are exposed to a positive case, it is not necessary to quarantine. It is important to still get tested, just to reassure us that a transmission did not take place. And so, if there were a positive case, that person would immediately self-isolate and an understudy would come in. Any cast or crew who were around someone who was a confirmed positive would be immediately tested and then tested again 48 hours later just to confirm that no transmission has taken place.
Ross: We have three understudies, not two, just as an extra sort of precaution. And to sing the praises of Mirimus again, we can increase testing frequency very easily. With PCR testing, we get our results within 18 hours, and I think over the first few weeks it has been closer to 10. So the ability to increase testing frequency, in a way that’s both efficient and economical, and to have the accuracy of a PCR test is really key to our strategy here as well.
Broadway News: How did you arrive at the policies for audience members?
Ross: We were aiming to leave enough time so that audiences really knew what to expect and could prepare, while also waiting long enough, because conditions partially dictate the policy. And so we’re really looking at prioritizing safety for everyone in the building and comfort, as well knowing that comfort means different things for different people.
Adamson: My perspective is that “Pass Over” has really taken a conservative approach. Ensuring that everyone is vaccinated and to additionally have people wear masks when they’re not seated is a very progressive move. That is more than necessary, but I think it will really lead the way as we go into fall with the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with the increase in the Delta variant. I think the right thing to do is to be cautious to ensure that gathering people together in a safe way to enjoy theater is possible.
BN: How concerned are you about the Delta variant?
Adamson: We have to keep a close eye on Delta transmission and infections in New York, and be able to quickly change things like the frequency of testing, the way rehearsals are run or what the masking policies are. I think that everyone needs to be flexible and willing to be able to modify something if we do see things change.
Ross: We’re watching this closely, and we’re taking it very seriously. And at the same time. I don’t know that we’ve yet seen anything that points us away from the idea that this is a manageable risk, and that we have things in place to keep people safe.
BN: How important are steps such as contactless payments and cleaning surfaces to prevent COVID-19 transmission?
Adamson: More and more scientific evidence is building that environmental transmission through touching of surfaces is not one of the primary routes of transmission of SARS-CoV-2, So, while touching things is associated with transmission of influenza, we really don’t see that as a source of transmission for SARS-CoV-2. It’s really about the air. I think much more than cleaning or contactless payments, bringing in fresh, outside air and filtering air that’s inside is absolutely the best return on investment.
Both in the front of the house and the back of the house, there have been careful inspections and enhancements to the ventilation system at the August Wilson Theatre, and the addition of supplemental HEPA filters that are portable and added in strategic places. This is one of the ways that we can ensure that there are no dead spots with stagnant air.