Industry NewsMedical Experts Stress Continued Importance of Ventilation Strategies in Theatres Amid Omicron SpreadDr. Jon LaPook and Dr. Joseph G. Allen discuss how Broadway companies and audiences can remain safe as performances face breakthrough COVID-19 cases.
December 23, 2021
As Broadway productions have welcomed back audiences over the last few months—and, in recent weeks, have faced cancellations due to breakthrough COVID cases—certain safety policies have become the norm. Audiences and company members alike need to be “fully vaccinated” (though, at least for now, this does not include a booster). Masks are mandatory. But the surge of the Omicron variant has medical experts reemphasizing another critical talking point we’ve heard since March 2020: the importance of proper ventilation.
In a recent interview with Deadline, CBS News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook (a Stars in the House regular) and Lancet COVID-19 Commissioner Dr. Joseph G. Allen discussed the role air filtration plays in a space like a Broadway theatre, particularly at a time when cases are on the rise but shows do their best to remain open.
“The urgency has been there for two years,” Allen says, “but I think when some organizations didn’t improve their ventilation strategy and maybe got lucky in the past, the margin of luck has run out with Omicron.” LaPook offers an analogy that concisely depicts that continued urgency: “If somebody were 15 feet away from you in a room that’s poorly ventilated, and they were smoking, would you be able to smell smoke 15 feet away? Of course. Well, the same thing is true with the virus.”
Physically, theatres are a challenging structure to navigate ventilation protocols, as spaces rang from cavernous auditoriums to cramped backstage spaces. The former helps reduce the risk of performer-to-audience transmission, especially when everyone is vaccinated, performers have tested negative, and audiences are masked. However, this may not be the case behind the scenes. “These are tight quarters,” Allen explains. “This is where you’re going to want to really be sure your ventilation and filtration are working well…in fact, if you’ve thought about the highest risk targets or locations, it would be back there.”
Both doctors go into some safety practices focused on improving ventilation, including upgraded filters and filtration monitors. LaPook emphasizes, however, that in addition to implementing these protocols, they need to be communicated, especially as it’s a step not as visible as, say, a doorman checking vaccination cards, a mask over every face, or plexiglass barriers at bars. “There’s got to be transparency,” he says. “It’s got to be clearly communicated to the audience, to the actors.”
Regular testing remains critical as well, as evident in the myriad productions that have detected breakthrough cases in their companies. LaPook and Allen acknowledge that testing circumstances are not universal—and productions’ specific testing policies may vary or may not be disclosed publicly—but steps can be taken to ensure testing is performed as efficiently and safely as possible. Read more of their insights, including thoughts on a future booster mandate like the one recently implemented at The Metropolitan Opera, here.