A few nights ago, I joined more than 3,000 audience members from all over the world at the Metropolitan Opera for a performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, about a ship’s captain doomed to drift endlessly, disembarking only briefly every seven years to search for his true love. At the time, the corona-infected cruise ship Grand Princess was circling off the coast of California, forbidden to dock, while passengers got gradually sicker. During the two and a half intermissionless hours, as Wagner’s boiling music swirled around the auditorium, it seemed to me that it was carrying microbes on currents of sound. Brass explosions covered coughs, and fevered singing distracted from the news of fevers on the outside. Coincidentally, Dutchman was the show that brought cultural life back to normal after 9/11, after Mayor Rudolph Giuliani exhorted New York City Opera to turn the lights back on. Going to a show then was a necessary balm, a sign that a wounded city would stagger on, even thrive. Now it’s a sign that we’re not taking this threat seriously enough.
It’s time to close. Opera, theater, movies, clubs, bars—these places of leisure are vectors for accelerating the spread of a disease that takes advantage of the human instinct to get on with life no matter what. Going out for the evening often means jamming bodies together at rush-hour levels of intimacy. We jostle for a drink at the bar, wait on packed lines, dance in wriggling masses, navigate claustrophobic lobbies, and sit for hours with strangers breathing down our necks. (And don’t even think about the bathrooms.) A visiting Martian might conclude that the whole point of live entertainment was group physical contact.
As a critic, I make my living as a consumer of cultural events. Even so, it’s easy for me to call for a shutdown. I’m not the one who’ll be hemorrhaging millions every night or facing months of unemployment. Nobody should underestimate the trauma that even a relatively brief period of darkness will inflict. Productions years in the making may never reopen. Careers can derail and opportunities vaporize. Audiences defect. After 9/11, the subscription model, in which institutions could count on the sustained loyalty of audience members, collapsed, making it immensely more expensive and difficult to sell events, ticket by ticket to a public that had grown chary of planning ahead. Several productions on Broadway — where it can take a decade to get a show onstage — staggered to their fall openings and then closed within days.
Entertainment is woven into the city’s economy. Broadway shows sold nearly 15 million tickets last season, bringing in $1.8 billion. When you go out for a meal, a drink, a show, or a basketball game, you’re helping 196,000 New Yorkers pay the rent. Your fun is their livelihood, and many of those workers — dancers, janitors, busboys, ushers, freelance musicians, fundraisers, production assistants, and so on — have little or no insurance or job security. As always, misery hits hardest among those least able to withstand it.
It’s difficult to imagine New York without its nightlife, even for a month or two, and especially at a time when the need for distraction is sharpest. That’s precisely why the decision to stifle it is so agonizing to contemplate. So far, decisions about social distancing have been left up to individuals. If you’re sick, stay home. If you’re feeling fine, knock yourself out. But each of us has a different attitude toward risk and civic responsibility, or what “sick” even means. I shouldn’t have to trust that my seatmate’s cough is the result of seasonal allergies. The frail music lover struggling toward her seat, pain be damned, shouldn’t have to wonder whether the performance will be worth exposure to a bug that could kill her in a couple of weeks.
It’s also not fair or sensible to leave decisions up to institutions and presenters whose business agendas run directly counter to sound public health. If they shut down preemptively, they have to take the hit. If they are forced to close by government edict, they can at least start haggling with their insurers. That’s one reason the Broadway League, the producers’ and theater owners’ trade organization, has phrased a statement that reeks of legalistic buck passing: “We are following the lead of our city, state and federal elected officials as we implement strategies recommended by public health authorities and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in all of our theatres and offices as all productions continue to play as scheduled.”
The show-must-go-on principle is a powerful one. The producer Scott Rudin is trying to shore up attendance by offering $50 tickets to a handful of plays and musicals. The Broadway League’s containment measures include stepping up bathroom cleanings and asking fans not to cluster at the stage door. Lincoln Center is composed of more than a dozen independent entities, each of which is free, so far, to reach a different conclusion. Juilliard alone among campus constituents has canceled performances. The rest are furiously monitoring the situation. New York’s blitheness in the face of a pandemic is all the more striking because of other cities’ decisiveness. Milan has gone silent. Berlin shuttered state-run cultural institutions and pleaded with private theaters to do the same. San Francisco’s mayor, London Breed, closed down the War Memorial Opera House, which hosts the symphony, opera, and ballet, as well as all events convening more than 1,000 attendees. Diluting the enforced intimacy of entertainment is one option. For a while, movie theaters in Rome sold only a third of their tickets and roped off the remaining seats, enforcing a degree of social distancing while staying open. But that strategy only adds to the inconsistency and murk, and who knows if it works?
Officials in various cities have made different economic calculations and have different powers. All of them, however, face the same epidemiological facts. Historical evidence shows that social distancing works; it’s also one of the few collective measures we have at our disposal. During the deadly flu epidemic of 1918, Philadelphia held a victory parade that may have caused the infection rate to spike: celebration = death. Last month, the biotechnology company Biogen held a conference in Boston that may have incubated some good ideas but definitely did the same for the virus: The majority of Massachusetts’s cases can be traced back to a couple of days of glad-handing. Conferences and conventions and festivals are being scrapped all over the country. It’s not clear to me why going to Madison Square Garden or Carnegie Hall is really any different.
The ubiquitous hygiene advice can only go so far. The question is not what behavior will make any one person less likely to get sick; it’s what policy decisions will protect public health and civil society, even at the expense of self-interest and economic stability.
Few public agencies have been willing to take the necessary steps. The CDC exhorts event planners to, well, plan. The president insists the virus will miraculously melt away. “Reduce large gatherings,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference today. “Why would you risk bringing thousands of people together?” So far, though, both he and Mayor Bill De Blasio have mostly advised commuters to stay off crowded trains.
“Broadway and our other cultural institutions are open for business,” declared the mayor’s deputy press secretary Jane Meyer. “We recommend these establishments frequently clean their facilities, and that New Yorkers continue with their daily lives as long as they are not sick or have underlying health conditions.” All up and down the line, our political leaders are paralyzed, and their dithering will almost certainly make the situation worse. Instead of unity, we are getting scattershot cancellations, that leaves the public ever more confused, along with officials’ insistence that life go on as normally as it can.
The evidence suggests that the choice is not between a shutdown and no shutdown; it’s between shutting things down now, when the disease is still relatively rare in our area, or waiting until more people have died, the virus has propagated further, and the medical system starts to be overburdened. Closing Broadway, Lincoln Center, clubs, and other gathering spots right away has the potential to be shorter and more effective. A shutdown that comes later would be longer, harder to enforce, and possibly too late.