With the continued waves of COVID-19, the 41 theaters that make up Broadway have become their own battlefields, combating the virus with a crucial line of defense: COVID Compliance Teams. Thrust to the frontlines, these teams hold the heavy burden of ensuring a safe environment for audiences and theater workers alike.
The front-of-house compliance teams are responsible for enforcing the audience member protocols set by the Broadway League (the industry’s trade association): attending a show with photo identification and proof of full vaccination. For those who claim exemption, a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the performance, or an antigen test within six hours, is needed instead.
“It’s a bootcamp in customer service,” says Gianfranco Lentini, Six’s COVID Compliance Manager at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. “You can’t take it personally. You have to stay pleasant, lower the stakes of the moment, and mediate the situation quickly.”
While Lentini acknowledges that crisis and conflict management is a big aspect of his role, he sees that overall success in COVID compliance work means seamlessly pivoting between multiple mindsets: scientists, doctors, psychologists and even babysitters for the parents who didn’t meet the criteria but insist on sending their children to see the show without them.
Understanding the fear and confusion theatergoers might feel about the new COVID routines, Lentini checks for any updates to the CDC guidelines and Broadway League protocols before he heads to the theater each day so he can better assist patrons, whether it's explaining the reasoning behind a protocol, supplying free masks or directing them to the nearest COVID testing site in Times Square. Even being prepared with this knowledge, Lentini has learned to observe the body language of a potentially frustrated theatergoer and how to navigate it in real-time.
There are so many moments where I’m shocked by humanity.
“People think we’re the enemy because we're the ones telling them how they don't meet the qualifications,” says Lentini. “Anybody who works in COVID compliance team is your friend. We're all on the same team—we want you to come see the show, we want Broadway to be happening!”
C, a COVID Compliance Monitor who spoke anonymously due to her contract, has also learned to discern problematic behavior from working at the theater entrance and inside the house.
“If they're giving you a problem outside, they're most likely going to give you a problem inside,” says C, who has worked at several Broadway theaters. “Mask compliance is the hardest thing. People do not want to wear their masks. I've been called ‘The Mask Nazi’ multiple times.”
The theaters C has worked at employ a “three strike rule,” meaning the non-compliant audience member is escorted out of the theater after three warnings, but C personally thinks that’s too many for the level of disrespect she’s witnessed.
“There are so many moments where I’m shocked by humanity,” says C. “Once when I called out [to the line] for proof of vaccination and photo IDs, a man said, ‘I got my proof of vaccination tattooed on my ass. Want me to pull my pants down?’”
Navigating remarks like this was not covered in the two-hour COVID safety certification training that compliance workers are required to take. Instead, the course covers tracking test results and handling a positive test, which are responsibilities of the backstage COVID Compliance teams supervising the safety of a show’s company, including performers and crew members.
Quentin Brown, a performer, has worked with The Music Man and Moulin Rouge!’s Broadway and national tour companies as a COVID Safety Manager. He began working in COVID care after Broadway shut down in March 2020, eventually working for a full year at Jacobi Medical Center’s emergency room in the Bronx. Brown’s experience inspired him to attend nursing school, and also provides important insight for his current role.
He manages testing, assesses air filtration and ventilation, distributes new masks to company members as they enter the building (to avoid bringing germs they may have picked up on public transportation), monitors mask compliance, and answers questions about protocols—including demonstrating how to sing with a mask, tapping into his performance background for that one.
He’s also on-call 24/7.
“The emails, the calls, the texts—they happen at all times of the day. It could be 10:30pm or 3:00am. It’s non-stop.”
His healthcare expertise informs his recommendations on how to expand upon the safety rules set by the unions, like increasing testing due to the Omicron surge from Broadway League’s required three times a week to daily. Testing is an area in which Brown would like to see more consistency.
“The League document requires a pre-employment PCR test, but after that, there’s no set rule on what the weekly test is, it can be antigen or PCR. There’s a lot of confusion.”
As a new line of work with no precedent, there’s sure to be a steep learning curve, but all of the workers—front and back of house—agree more communication and transparency with the industry power players would be beneficial.
“They work with an epidemiologist, but are missing information from us,” says Brown. “They’re the Pentagon making daily check-in calls, but they aren’t boots on the ground.”
C agrees, “There should be a meeting with the people who are actually in the theaters, asking specifically about the experiences of women and people of color.”
These COVID compliance workers are exhausted from their time in the trenches but take pride in restoring—and protecting—one of New York City’s beloved industries.
“All we need is someone saying, ‘thank you,’ because sometimes it is a thankless job,” says Lentini.
The “diehard fans” are what keep Lentini from total burn-out, some showing up to the theater in Six cosplay and singing as they stand in line. He’s even witnessed patrons offering up their own at-home tests to fellow theatregoers who need to test before entering the theater.
“That’s the camaraderie we're looking for because that’s the spirit of Broadway,” says Lentini. “Ultimately, we just want people to be safe, happy, healthy and entertained.”