Actors’ Equity Says It Was Not Consulted In Mask-Optional Policy; Broadway League Calls New Approach “Entirely Consistent” With Negotiated Protocols – Update

UPDATE with Broadway League response In a letter sent to members of Actors’ Equity Association and obtained by Deadline, the union says that the Broadway League’s decision to adopt a “mask optional” policy for audience members beginning in July was “made unilaterally, without input” from the union.

In a response provided to Deadline, the League says the mask optional announcement is “entirely consistent with our fully negotiated safety protocols.” (See the statement in full below.)

The League, the trade organization that represents theater owners and producers, said Tuesday that in July audience members will be encouraged, but not mandated, to wear masks in theaters. The policy, which will be re-evaluated on a monthly basis, ends Broadway’s audience mask mandate that’s been in place since theaters reopened from the Covid shutdown last fall.

Although Equity, which represents actors and stage managers in the theater, did not publicly respond to the League’s announcement, a letter sent to its members Wednesday indicates that unions “were only given advance notice a couple of hours before the [League’s] announcement,” and that input from the union was not sought by the producers and owners in setting the mask optional policy.

In response, Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin said in a statement to Deadline, “Since the pandemic began, the League has been working closely with our union colleagues along with our respective health and safety experts to collaborate on ensuring that we are providing the best protocols for the safety for our cast, crew and the audience. These current protocols reflect the agreements reached with our bargaining partners including an agreement that we do not require our audiences to wear masks in our theaters. The decision announced regarding audience masking is, accordingly, entirely consistent with our fully negotiated safety protocols. We are proud of the work we have done together with our unions to create our industry-leading health and safety protocols.”

In the Equity letter, the union tells members that the union has consulted with its public health and medical advisors, and that those advisors “assure us that the best COVID-19 mitigation efforts available today for theatrical workplaces are focused on ventilation.”

“We are continuing to negotiate with the League around ventilation standards in rehearsal spaces and theaters – including onstage and backstage areas,” the letter states, reminding members that the league’s decision on audience mask mandates “does not change the current protocols for members backstage.”

The letter also includes a statement from Dr. Mark Cunningham-Hill, the union’s chief public health consultant, who notes that “with more and more theaters dropping masking requirements for audiences, Equity is working hard to enhance ventilation in all your workplaces.”

“Ventilation,” Cunningham-Hill continues, “is critical in reducing the risks from airborne diseases such as COVID by filtering out, diluting and even killing viruses circulating in the air. Investments in ventilation will not only help keep everyone safer during this pandemic but also help protect against influenza and other airborne diseases now and in the future.”

The letter ends with the union asking members to “share with us your thoughts on the ending of the audience masking rules and your safety on the job.”

Here is the letter in full:

By now you have surely heard that the Broadway League is moving to a “mask optional” policy for audiences at Broadway shows for the month of July. This decision was made unilaterally, without input from your union or any other, and the unions were only given advance notice a couple of hours before the announcement.

Throughout the pandemic, Equity’s safety protocols have focused on the conditions onstage and backstage, where our public health and medical advisors see the most opportunity to improve the safety of stage managers and actors. Consulting with them today, they assure us that the best COVID-19 mitigation efforts available today for theatrical workplaces are focused on ventilation.

Here’s what Dr. Mark Cunningham-Hill had to say:

“We are hopefully past the worst of the pandemic but there is still a risk from SARS-CoV-2 which may continue for some time yet. So with more and more theaters dropping masking requirements for audiences, Equity is working hard to enhance ventilation in all your workplaces. Ventilation is critical in reducing the risks from airborne diseases such as COVID by filtering out, diluting and even killing viruses circulating in the air. Investments in ventilation will not only help keep everyone safer during this pandemic but also help protect against influenza and other airborne diseases now and in the future.”

The League’s decision on audience mask mandates does not change the current protocols for members backstage. We are continuing to negotiate with the League around ventilation standards in rehearsal spaces and theaters – including onstage and backstage areas. Adding your voice to the safety conversation sends a powerful message to your employers that they must take this seriously and act now.

With that in mind, we’d like to ask you to share with us your thoughts on the ending of the audience masking rules and your safety on the job. Please complete this very brief survey to share your opinions with the union.

Each member who raises their voice sends a message – when you all speak together, your employers cannot ignore what you have to say.

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