Got Your Proof of Vaccine for the Theater? It Could Be Required

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a vaccine passport with ticket stubs
When plays and musicals return, a full house may be contingent on requiring proof of vaccination. (Images via iStock)

For the past year, Bay Area theatergoers have subsisted on digital programming and crossed their fingers for a post-pandemic “new normal” to reinstate live indoor performances. As vaccinations increase across California, so does optimism about the safety of eventually returning to theater venues—but it’s possible patrons will have to prove they’ve been vaccinated in exchange for entry.

“Vaccine passports” are already a reality in New York: at both Barclays Center and Madison Square Garden, attendees are currently required to present an app or QR code that shows they’ve either been vaccinated or tested negative for COVID-19 within the previous 72 hours. Israel has incorporated a “Green Badge” system that limits leisure activities to vaccinated individuals, and the European Union’s version of vaccine passports will allow people who have gotten jabs to travel more freely between member countries.

Currently, this question remains a hypothetical one for Bay Area theaters. According to the California Department of Health’s March 11 update on its reopening framework, indoor performances won’t be permitted until each county passes out of the colored tier system entirely, and the required modifications for those events are still forthcoming. In the meantime, theaters are left to consider if they’d be receptive to implementing vaccine requirements, especially in light of the ethical and logistical questions they raise.

“Frankly, I consider it an intrusion of privacy,” says Stephanie Weisman, executive and artistic director of The Marsh. “To have people show a card to come into a little theater like The Marsh, which is all about social justice and authentic, intimate voices? It feels very, very intrusive.”

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Weisman’s concerns are not unfounded, but legally challenging vaccine passport policies on privacy grounds will be tricky. Medical information in the United States is currently protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, which prevents healthcare providers from disclosing sensitive patient information without the patient’s consent. But HIPAA does not apply to private businesses like performance venues—so there’s currently no law preventing such entities from verifying someone’s vaccination status.

Meanwhile, charges of discrimination might likely hold more water. Disparities in vaccination rates suggest that wealthy, white Americans are getting inoculated before lower-income citizens and people of color. Immunity requirements could exacerbate these societal gaps.

Weisman admits that she might end up weighing these issues against her desire to see her theater reopen. She’s proud of the community that has sprung up around the theater’s online arm, MarshStream, but it’s no substitute for the genuine article: “How does a performer relate to an audience through a digital stream, when it’s so much about any performer’s relationship to seeing people and seeing their reactions?”

Daniel Thomas, a co-executive director of San Francisco’s 42nd Street Moon, envisions a balanced approach to restoring this intimacy. “We can’t demand or require that they show us proof of vaccination, but we can ask that they provide that if they’re comfortable with it,” says Thomas, citing additional supplementary safety measures such as masks, temperature checks, contact tracing information and fewer performances to allow time for cleaning.

Any such proposal, of course, will have to be scrapped if the state mandates that theaters verify vaccinations at the door, an uncertainty that’s kindling frustration as companies attempt to plan their very tentative fall seasons. “The regulations for live theater have always been kind of an afterthought,” says Thomas.

“Our state is being very specific about where we fall,” echoes Marin Theatre Company artistic director Jasson Minadakis. “If that changes, then we’re going to have to start thinking about those moral questions.”

Minadakis acknowledges the “waiting game” of trying to forecast state guidelines when live theater—which typically packs people together indoors for the length of a few acts and an intermission—will be last in the reopening line. Vaccine passports like those required in New York could possibly be on the table, but he won’t commit to pursuing any policy before the government confirms it’s necessary.

Khori Dastoor, Opera San Jose’s general director, fires off a list of measures she’d incorporate before certifying audiences’ vaccine credentials. The company plans to trade out longer opera programming, some of which clocks in at over three hours, for truncated, socially distanced outdoor performances.

Dastoor says those steps will be easier than checking every audience member’s vaccination status. “It’s a lot to ask of our ushers,” Dastoor says. “It’s a big promise to make to our patrons that we can, with confidence, assure them that every single person in the auditorium has provided some sort of proof.”

But Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s audiences have shown that they might respond favorably to that kind of assurance, based on the results of a survey sent out to subscribers and single ticket buyers. According to managing director Susie Medak, respondents indicated that the most important factors for returning to the theater were getting vaccinated themselves and knowing that others were vaccinated, too. Over 60% of survey takers said they hoped Berkeley Rep would require vaccinations for participation.

Medak is willing to enact these rules if it makes guests safer, but she anticipates inevitable controversies that could incite a rocky reaction from the wider public.

“I know that this is exactly what many of our people really want to hear,” Medak says. “And I’m sure there are also people who are just going to be outraged.”