New York City’s museums, concerts and Broadway theaters are desperately trying to keep their doors open amid a surge in COVID-19 cases, but the onslaught is overwhelming a tourism industry that had just started to regain its footing.
Last week, the city decided to limit the number of revelers at the New Year’s Eve ball drop in Times Square to 15,000, a fraction of the million people who packed in for the celebration in years past.
MSG Entertainment, which vowed to keep its shows and events going at Madison Square Garden, had to scuttle a four-day Phish run and some Cirque du Soleil shows due to breakthrough cases among its production. The Metropolitan Museum of Art re-instituted the half-capacity restrictions it was once mandated to impose, capping daily attendance to 10,000 from the 20,000 visitors it had seen on good days.
“There is no doubt that the performing arts industry has been hit by this surge,” said Bennett Rink, executive director of Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, whose dance company canceled the last five shows of its season due to COVID cases within the company. “The current round of shutdowns has been difficult as we all have been working hard to return to the stage.”
Broadway, which had just celebrated its reopening in September after going dark for 18 months, has been among the hardest hit. In the week ending Dec. 19, when widespread cancellations began, attendance dropped by 23% from the prior week and the money shows brought in fell by 26% during what’s typically its most profitable period, according to the Broadway League’s latest data.
More than a dozen productions including “Hamilton” and “Moulin Rouge” canceled shows. “Waitress” ended its run two weeks early and “Jagged Little Pill” shuttered for good.
“It is daunting to see,” said Keenan Scott II, who wrote “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which opened in October after delaying its Broadway debut in 2020.
Scott even filled in for a cast member who tested positive for COVID last week to ensure the performance could continue, but the play ended up cutting short its run due to the surge in virus cases.
“I don’t take lightly that people are still coming to shows during the pandemic,” Scott said. “We’re trying to avoid an industrywide shutdown.”
When COVID first hit New York in March 2020, the city’s tourism industry all but collapsed. Demand for hotel rooms crashed from 2.8 million per month in the first months of 2020 to 1 million per month during the pandemic, according to a report by the city Comptroller. Nearly 250,000 leisure and hospitality jobs were lost, leading to soaring unemployment in the city that even today, remains twice the U.S. average at 9%.
But as vaccinations became widely available, state and local governments lifted restrictions and the U.S. started allowing international visitors, tourism rebounded. Hotel room demand rose to 2.3 million in October. More than 93,000 jobs in the industry came back between January and November, according to the city Comptroller report.
There are still 150,000 fewer industry jobs than before the pandemic, making up more than a third of private jobs in the city that haven’t recovered. In November, a third fewer visitors came to Times Square compared to two years prior, according to the Times Square Alliance.
With the industry just starting to claw its way back to life ahead of the holiday season, omicron hit.
In the last few weeks, the percentage of positive COVID cases jumped from 1% to above 11% as of Dec. 21, according to city data. The hospitalization rate doubled in the last two weeks. Multiday quarantines after positive tests or exposure also means many people can’t go to work or travel.
“How many times is this going to happen?” said Patrick McCann, 31, an actor who also works as a bartender at Broadway theaters. “How are other variants after omicron going to affect us? What are we going to keep doing?”
Not to mention the artists and venues who feel responsible for hosting events that could lead to more COVID cases.
After learning nearly half the tickets bought for a recent LCD Soundsystem concert were by tourists, the Brooklyn rock band said on Dec. 17 it would keep playing even after some concert goers said they got COVID at earlier performances.
Then, two days later, the band changed course. “We were incredibly thankful for everyone who wanted to make it work,” it wrote on Twitter, announcing the cancellation of three remaining shows. “But it will have to wait, again, until we find out what this new wave means to us all.”
Since tourism-related sales taxes made up 21% of the city’s pre-pandemic sales tax base, budget expectations rely, in part, on the return of visitors, the comptroller’s report said. International tourists, in particular, account for half of spending in a given year, said Christopher Heywood, a NYC & Company spokesperson.
“The city is still open for business and people are still here,” said Heywood, who expects 34.6 million visitors this year, down from 66.6 million in 2019.
Indeed, in the last week many tourists continued to delight in the city’s bright Christmas lights, decorated storefronts and holiday shows.
“I had family that were saying, ‘just don’t go, don’t go, cause it’s so bad over there,’” said Meghan Chico, a nursing assistant from Seattle who flew to New York with her boyfriend to celebrate his completion of U.S. army basic training.
His parents paid for the trip, so “I was like, ‘OK I’ll just go and double mask and sanitize every five minutes,’” she said.
The 25-year-olds strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge, roamed around Times Square and saw a Knicks game — but the “Aladdin” show they planned to see got canceled.
Chico was glad they stuck with the trip and said she was encouraged by venues checking vaccinations.
“The city’s always an exciting place to be,” she said.