NYC Media and Entertainment Commissioner on Omicron’s Impact

The holiday season was supposed to be a celebratory time for New York City’s theater and live events industries, marking a period of revival after months of setbacks and closures related to COVID-19. But omicron, a fast-moving and highly contagious variant of the virus, had other plans. Its spread has led several Broadway and off-Broadway plays to shut down or go on hiatus and it could cause headaches for the many television shows and movies that shoot across the five boroughs.

As commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Anne del Castillo is on the frontlines. She’s trying to help theaters stay open and and to keep productions humming even as omicron threatens to upend the city’s recovery. All of this has been happening as Bill de Blasio handed over the keys to City Hall to Eric Adams. Del Castillo spoke to Variety about the impact of the recent surge of coronavirus and the desperate need to provide more testing and financial resources to the theater business.

How is COVID and more specifically omicron impacting New York’s film and television business, as well as theater and other live events?

It varies from sector to sector. Many television productions are typically on hiatus at this time of year. We’ve seen some of them coming back last week, but other shows are pushing off their re-start date with an eye towards out-waiting the peak, which people think should happen in mid-January. So they are planning to come back on Jan. 18 or beyond, so that’s encouraging. Live theater has taken a serious hit. We saw this happen before the holidays when we saw the Rockettes shut down and saw cancellations, which mostly had to do with talent or crew testing positive. That’s hard because these live performance and theater venues were looking to make up during the holidays what they lost during the months of shutdown.

You mentioned that some Broadway shows have cancelled performances because of breakthrough cases of COVID. Are ticket sales being impacted because people are concerned about contracting the virus?

It’s had an impact. There have been some show cancellations because of gathering aversion. Audiences are a little bit reluctant to come out in full force. January is a month that tends to be slow anyway, but that makes it even harder for theaters that were struggling to begin with to deal with this challenge. When audiences decide that they’re not psyched to go out because they’re not sure what their susceptibility might be, it’s a big problem. Our theaters have done a really good job of messaging their safety protocols, but it’s just a basic psychological response if people are getting sick you want to stay home. You don’t care how safe it is. So unfortunately that is taking a toll on ticket sales and that impacts the longevity of a show. It’s across the board. It’s not just Broadway. It’s our live concerts, it’s our small theaters.

Will these theaters and venues need additional assistance at the federal, state and/or city level?

We knew that it was a problem for venues to be shut down for six months and now we’re going into, I don’t know, month 24, so I do think we’re going to see a really strong need for additional assistance to get the restart going. We have to find a way to support these sectors because the ramifications are far beyond the businesses we’re talking about. When arts and entertainment goes down, our small businesses suffer because people aren’t going out to eat as much and those productions aren’t buying supplies. There’s a real serious ripple effect.

Given the partisan gridlock we’re seeing in D.C., is it realistic to think we can get more federal support for arts organizations?

I can’t comment on that because we’ve been so focused on the public health response and we just got a new administration. Those are conversations that we will be having in the next few weeks. At the moment, we’re focused on getting access to more testing, which is what we hear would be most helpful to those businesses that are still running so they can test their workers. We also need to make testing available for patrons so they feel comfortable going into theaters. “Save our Stages” was continuing to get applications through last fall. Those needs have been ongoing and it has just been intensified and amplified by omicron. I don’t think anyone foresaw the kind of shutdowns and cancellations that we’ve been seeing in the last three or four weeks.

Is it responsible for people to go to theaters or restaurants until testing improves and hospitals are less overwhelmed?

It’s why we continue to push the messaging about getting vaccinated and boosted. That is ultimately what is going to get us all back on track. What the public health data is showing is that if you have been vaxxed and boosted your risk of hospitalization is much less than if you’re not vaxxed and boosted. It’s a delicate balance. We know that we need people to be able to work. We need people to be able to earn a living and people do that in different ways. Listen, I struggle with it and I’m struggling with it right now. We need people to find ways to engage with arts and entertainment safely, but as I said, theaters have done a really standup job on their safety protocols.

Theaters currently require proof of vaccination to attend shows. Will they also require patrons to get the booster?

I’m hearing there is talk of that, but I have yet to see anyone come out with that as a policy yet.

As you mentioned, New York City has a new mayor in Eric Adams. How does he plan to approach the arts sector?

We are very much aligned in our view that New York city’s arts and entertainment sector is integral to New York City’s identity and economy. We are really focused on making sure we’re providing the kind of promotion and technical support to keep moving forward with reopening. We’ve also seen that [Mayor Adams] is keeping the mask mandates in place and asking businesses to return to work because we’re all interdependent on each other for a successful recovery.

How many film and television productions are being shot in the city? Has there been a hit to local production?

We are seeing productions roll back, maybe a little slower. About seven have pushed their start dates by a week, but no one has called to cancel. They’re still moving forward. I expect we’ll be back at our usual level of production by the end of the month which is typically 35 productions on any given day.

What are the stakes here if there isn’t more government assistance for theaters and live events venues? Are there going to be mass layoffs in the creative community and will theaters go out of business?

There’s always that risk unfortunately. That’s why we’re seeing theaters postpone shows as opposed to trying to reopen right now. They want to stay afloat. These are really difficult times. I think we really thought we were going to be past this at this point. Sadly, we’re not.