It’s much like the penultimate scene in a sci-fi movie. At just the moment you think you’ve beaten the coronavirus and are on the verge of getting back to some semblance of a normal life, a new strain emerges to pull you back down into the thick of the fight.
According to the American Society for Microbiology, the Delta variant was first identified in India in December of 2020. Within a matter of months, this particular strain of COVID-19 spread to over 98 countries around the world, emerging as the dominant variant in more than a dozen of those countries — including India, the U.K., Israel and the United States. At this writing, Delta is responsible for more than 83 percent of COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. and with only 48 percent of the total U.S. population fully vaccinated, conditions are ripe for its continued evolution and capacity to spread.
In some ways the situation is worse now than when the pandemic began early last year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns the Delta variant is more contagious and may cause more severe illness in unvaccinated persons than previous strains. Fully vaccinated people with Delta variant breakthrough infections can spread the virus to others, though vaccinated people appear to be infectious for a shorter period. Continuing concern lies with the fact that nearly half the population is still unvaccinated and the country has grown increasingly polarized over the issue, as politicians wage verbal warfare with scientists over vaccine efficacy and the need for masks to stem the spread. All of this has led Dr. Anthony Fauci, long-time chief of the Laboratory of Immunoregulation and current director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Chief Medical Advisor to President Biden, to announce the crisis won’t be under control until spring of 2022.
So how does all of this affect South Florida Theatre? Will shows go on? Will they be delayed? Are producers taking further steps to ensure the safety of audiences, casts, crews and theater staffs?
Bill Hayes of Palm Beach Dramaworks has pushed the opening of his season until December, due to a projected spike in the Delta variant.
William Hayes, producing artistic director for Palm Beach Dramaworks, said those questions have been on his mind for months —ultimately forcing him to scuttle his plans for reviving PBD’s delayed production of “The Light in the Piazza.”
“That set was built and it was the largest cast we’d ever had,” Mr. Hayes said. “We had to shut it down about a week into rehearsal. We gave the actors two weeks’ severance pay and we sent them home. We kept tabling the show and held everything in storage, thinking that we were going to mount it eventually. But recently we decided to scrap the production altogether.”
His reasons stemmed from the fact that there were too many cast members and too little backstage space, not to mention daunting requirements for orchestra and stage crew personnel.
“It was too many people to put in a confined space,” he said. “It’ll be probably two or three years before we can do a show like this.”
Mr. Hayes added his season will now get pushed back into December, beginning with Michael McKeever’s play “The People Downstairs.”
“But we’re still going to try to do five productions as we originally planned,” he said. “It’ll be a tremendous strain on the staff, but we think it’s negative press to say we’ve cut productions. We’re doing a state-of-the-art, $1.5 million renovation to our theater to upgrade the air conditioning system and upgrade all air purification, but the reality is the Delta variant is probably going to spike in September. That raises the issue of booster shots, which will take time to administer. And considering our patrons are mostly seniors, we think it’s more realistic to open in December rather than October. We won’t cut any shows, though, and we will require masks. It’s not a political thing, it’s being considerate of the people around us.”
Mr. Hayes added all new hires at his theater will be required to vaccinate and everyone will be mandated to mask up.
“Part of that comes from the CDC and part comes from Actors’ Equity Association,” he said. “And it will be strictly enforced. It’s not a political thing at all. It’s about being safe, humane and considerate. In the past we used to recycle programs and now we’re making sure that a program is handled only by the patron to whom it was given. After that we dispose of it. We’re trying to make the restrooms as much a touch-free experience as possible. If someone comes to our theater with cold symptoms, they won’t be admitted. And even if we get to a point where, like before, things feel safe, just for psychological reasons we’ll keep the mask mandate going for a while. I think it’s important to make your neighbor feel safe. You’re sitting in a theater for two hours. Is it so bad to be considerate of other people?”
Patrick Fitzwater of Slow Burn Theatre Company says audiences are shying away from buying season subscriptions, opting to wait and see how things go.
Patrick Fitzwater, artistic director and co-founder of Slow Burn Theatre Company, maintains his approach to dealing with the Delta variant is much the same as how he dealt with the initial onset of COVID-19.
“Our tickets hadn’t gone on sale yet during regular COVID, so there really isn’t anything to compare to what’s happened with the Delta variant,” Mr. Fitzwater said. “We didn’t really see a noticeable slowdown in sales between the first wave and this most recent one.”
He added ticket sales in general turned out to go a lot better than he thought they would.
“We had prepared for much worse,” he said. “Sales are not as strong as they were before the pandemic, but we’re actually in a better place than we had braced ourselves for.”
Mr. Fitzwater noted a trend of ticket buyers perhaps not looking as far ahead as they did before the pandemic.
“I just think season subscriptions in general aren’t too strong,” he said. “Ours saw a drop of about 20 percent. I believe people are going to wait and see what the climate is like the week of the show, what they feel like and how safe they feel. We’re all taking things on a day-to-day basis these days. You wake up and if you’re feeling a little under the weather you think is this an allergy or could it be COVID? I think after we get our first show of the season up, we’ll be able to track things better.”
Mr. Fitzwater added Slow Burn will mandate masks for its audience members, a practice he sees continuing at least until the beginning of 2022.
“By law we’re not allowed to ask for a vaccine status, because of the state we live in,” he said. “Many theaters outside of Florida are demanding at least a COVID test or to show proof of vaccination, but Gov. DeSantis has not signed that into law. Honestly, it’s something I wouldn’t be against. I can say our casts will all be 100 percent vaccinated as well as every single employee of the Broward Center, the crews, the designers, anybody who’s on a production site that we control is vaccinated.”
Slow Burn’s season is still on track to proceed without any changes or substitutions, he added.
“The only thing we’ve done differently is put more understudies into place,” he said. “That way if we have any COVID cases, we’ll isolate them and allow the show to still go on — after everyone receives a rapid test. If all tests come back negative, the show will go on, with the understudy in place.”
Marcie Gorman of MNM Theatre Company has pushed her season back to next January at the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center, where they plan to implement multiple steps to assure the safety, health and well-being of everyone who attends shows there.