New Yorkers are decidedly reluctant to return to Broadway shows in September, according to a new poll, but they are significantly more willing to go by the end of the year — as long as certain safeguards are in place.
And for the hesitant, their single greatest concern is their fellow audience members, who they worry will show up without masks or ignore social distancing rules.
A New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll, administered to New York State voters between May 17 and May 21, sought to gauge how soon New Yorkers would be comfortable attending live performances like Broadway shows. It showed a wariness of attending live theater performances, and pop and classical music concerts if they were to resume around Sept. 1, as well as a high bar for social distancing at venues that some industry leaders say it would not be possible for them to meet.
Many of the nation’s biggest live performance producers and presenters have given up on the idea of fall shows, setting their sights instead on 2021, and the poll suggests that they have taken the right read on just how ready their audiences are to come back.
Broadway industry leaders have said that their theaters will remain shuttered at least through Labor Day. Many believe that January is the earliest likely reopening date. The industry is seen as one of the most difficult to reopen because Broadway shows are often populated by tourists and seniors, two groups who seem likely to return to Times Square more slowly than others, and because of the close quarters onstage, backstage and in the audience.
With tourism down dramatically, New Yorkers are more important than ever to the industry, which seeks to retain its core audience even as visitors to the city become scarce.
Of New York State voters polled, only 39 percent of people who attend Broadway shows with some frequency said that they would be very likely or somewhat likely to see a show if it were to open around Sept. 1. When asked if they would attend by the end of the year — assuming the theater took all the precautions that the respondent deemed necessary — that number jumped to 57 percent. The poll involved 796 New York State voters, and it had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 points.
“That’s not all of their regular customers, but it’s a sizable group,” said Don P. Levy, director of the research institute. “There’s an audience, there’s a market.”
Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, a trade organization representing producers and theater owners, said she was not surprised that a core group of people were expressing an interest in returning by the fall.
“My inbox is full of people saying, ‘Hurry up, I’m ready,’” she said, then added, “But we won’t come back before it is safe.”
Creating that feeling of safety is the hurdle live performance producers must clear to get some people to return. And for many people, the main obstacles are their fellow audience members.
For Broadway attendees who say they aren’t likely to return any time soon, the reason, in large part, is a lack of trust that others in the audience will adhere to safety protocols: that a man in row M will refuse to cover his nose and mouth, that a woman standing in line at will-call would stand too close to the person in front of her.
According to the poll, 58 percent of New Yorkers who attended at least one Broadway show in 2019 but did not report that they were very likely to return this year said that they did not trust others to adhere to social distancing. Fifty-five percent gave as a reason that they did not trust others to wear masks. These concerns trumped two other concerns they were surveyed about: “getting there would not be safe for me” and “just being in the theater district is too much for me right now.”
Some 72 percent of those polled said that for them to attend a live performance this year it would be necessary for the venue to sell tickets so that audience members were separated by six feet. And the vast majority of people — 90 percent — would require professional cleaners to disinfect the theater or concert hall in between shows.
Arts organizations that are struggling financially because of the mass cancellation of programming will have to weigh whether these kinds of safeguards will make financial sense. For Broadway and opera, industry leaders have said that a socially distanced model would be untenable as it might require shows that are expensive to produce and often lose money in the best of times to sell only a fraction of their seats.
The challenge for theaters is, “How can they make those people feel safe and still be financially viable?,” Dr. Levy said.
Ms. St. Martin said the Broadway League was exploring every safety protocol from temperature checks to drones that disperse disinfectant. Social distancing, however, “won’t work for Broadway,” she said.
The poll also showed some partisan difference when it came to safety protocols. For example, 86 percent of Democrats polled said they would need performance venues to require masks, while 68 percent of Republicans said the same. There was an 11-point divide between Democrats and Republicans (80 percent and 69 percent) when it came to putting six feet of space in between audience members.
Among the respondents, those who identified themselves as black or Latino tended to express more caution about returning to live performances, perhaps a reflection of the disproportionate rates that these demographics are dying of the disease in New York City.
The poll asked respondents to answer how often they attended a variety of live performance events in 2019 — with 55 percent reporting that they went to at least one or two pop concerts and 35 percent saying they went to classical music concerts, dance performances or operas that often. Some 43 percent said they went to see at least one or two Broadway shows last year.
Roughly 38 percent of New Yorkers who attended at least one live performance in 2019 said that they would be very likely or somewhat likely to return to those cultural events around Sept. 1. Fall was not as daunting a prospect for the sports fans who said that they went to at least one or two games last year. Some 48 percent of those fans said they would be likely to return around Sept. 1, perhaps because many of those venues are outdoors.
New Yorkers showed even more of a willingness to return to museums, which may have an easier time establishing a safe environment with timed ticketing and reduced capacity. Fifty-six percent of those polled said that they were very likely, or somewhat likely, to visit this year, assuming that museums were able to implement social distancing. Reopening dates for those institutions have been something of a moving target, but many upstate museums have been preparing themselves to welcome visitors as soon as the governor’s reopening plan allows.