Aurora's Paramount Theatre mandates COVID-19 vaccination for theatergoers. Will others follow?

It's a question that would have confounded Hamlet himself.

Should theaters require proof of vaccination or not? That's the issue theater operators face now that in-person performances have resumed at the same time the delta variant is causing COVID-19 infection rates to spike.

Suburban theaters preparing to reopen have mostly adopted a wait-and-see approach with representatives saying they will rely on Centers for Disease Control, Illinois Department of Public Health and municipal guidelines to determine whether they will require audiences be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Not Paramount Theatre. Officials there announced last week they will require proof of vaccination for patrons attending its regional premiere of "Kinky Boots," which previews on Aug. 18 - 524 days after the pandemic forced the Aurora theater to close.

"We have an obligation to keep everyone safe and that's what we're trying to do," said Paramount president and CEO Tim Rater.

The mandatory vaccination requirement aligns the theater with its Broadway counterparts which on Friday mandated theatergoers, performers and staff members be vaccinated and audience members wear masks during performances.

At this time, masks at Paramount are optional. Children under 12, currently ineligible for a vaccine, are the exception. They must wear masks at all times and be accompanied by a vaccinated adult. Children under 4 will not be admitted.

"The last thing we want is to be closed again," said Rater. "So we're going to be following the recommendations from the IDPH and experts."

"We feel we're taking the safest route forward for everyone," said Rater, adding staff members, stagehands, musicians, actors, ushers and shop employees are all fully vaccinated. "We have five unions we coordinate with and all of them needed this path forward."

Paramount is not alone. Teatro ZinZanni, the cabaret/cirque dinner theater hybrid that reopened last month in Chicago, followed suit, announcing its patrons must provide proof of vaccination. Vaccine-ineligible ticket holders, including children 12 and younger, must wear face coverings except when eating.

And the Broadway announcement has local theater operators reconsidering coronavirus policies, which continue to evolve.

A Goodman Theatre spokeswoman said protocols may change as conditions dictate, but Monday's reopening of its coronavirus-delayed comedy "School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play" will be accompanied by mandatory masking and social distancing.

Social distancing isn't an option for Paramount, where its 1,843-seat capacity would be limited to 419 people.

"We can't produce 'Kinky Boots' with 400 people in the audience. And we haven't solved social-distancing obstacles in the lobby, restrooms and concessions area," he said.

Marriott Theatre faces similar challenges. Social distancing would reduce capacity from 838 to 200 patrons, said executive producer Terry James, making it impossible for the Lincolnshire theater to accommodate its 30,000 subscribers during the upcoming run of the John Kander and Fred Ebb revue "The World Goes 'Round," beginning Sept. 15.

"You really can't socially distance inside the theater, especially if you're a subscribed theater like many suburban theaters are," said James, adding "we'll do whatever we need to do to make sure we're in line with safety regulations."

That includes requiring actors, musicians and staff to be vaccinated and asking unvaccinated patrons to wear face masks. It also included overhauling ventilation and filtration systems, improvements equity theaters have undertaken.

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights has several contingency plans in place to return to full capacity Sept. 16 when "Shout! The Mod Musical" begins previews, said executive and artistic director Joe Keefe. Requesting patrons to wear masks and/or distancing are also options.

"We will meet and exceed any health and safety standards," he said. "It's our job to provide you with the best possible experience now, tomorrow and next year."

Oak Brook's First Folio Theatre, whose "The Jigsaw Bride: A Frankenstein Story" premieres Oct. 13, hasn't finalized reopening protocols but will consider requiring audience vaccinations.

"Our decision will be made solely on what we think is best for the safety and well-being of our staff and audiences," said Rice, adding that any protocols implemented may cost the theater customers.

Some patrons told him they won't attend if First Folio doesn't mandate vaccinations. Others said they won't support the theater if vaccinations are mandatory.

"Someone is going to be upset no matter what you do," he said. "You have to do what you think is right."

Audiences returning to the Paramount Theatre later this month for its regional premiere of "Kinky Boots" must show proof of vaccination, according to a notice on the Aurora theater's website. Courtesy of Paramount Theatre
Michael Wordly makes his Paramount Theatre debut as Lola in "Kinky Boots," beginning previews Aug. 18. Courtesy of Thomas J. King
First Folio Theatre executive director David Rice says his Oak Brook company hasn't determined whether to require proof of vaccination from audience members when performances resume Oct. 13.
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