I wanted to title this particular post, “Theatres: Hotbeds of Disease,” but that seemed, after due consideration, to be a bit alarmist and a potential deterrent to attendance. That is not my wish. However, it is extremely apt that just as I prepared to write this, I retrieved a message from my friend Mark, who referred to coming into New York as ‘entering a giant petri dish.’ Not a quote for the tourism posters, to say the least.
We are, as the news has been alerting us hourly, in the midst of a significant outbreak of the flu, which, when it was called influenza in the books we read as young adults, seemed more appropriately alarming. The contagion has blanketed the country and wherever you go, you hear people talking about feeling like they’re getting sick or how sick they were, accompanied by tweets and posts from people in the throes of illness.
Any place where people gather carries enormous risk for the uninfected and residual risk for the uninoculated: theatres certainly fit the bill, but so do schools, offices, mass transportation, stores and, worst of all, doctors’ waiting rooms and hospital ER’s. Anyone remember the rather horrifying scenes of microscopic droplets entering the noses and mouths of a movie theatre audience in the film Outbreak? Maybe it should be required viewing just about now.
We’re told, again and again, that the best deterrent is frequent hand-washing with soap and warm water. But while countless public places offer touchless Purell dispensers, I have been struck in the past couple of weeks by how many theatres, live and movie both, seem to have taken the Victorian workhouse approach to manual hygiene. Put more simply: why don’t they have, now or ever, warm water in rest room sinks?
In my highly unscientific study, not one venue restroom offers sink water above a temperature that might be politely called frigid. Dual faucets seem to simply mock us, each producing the same icy stream; the increasingly prevalent motion sensor faucets offer us no thermal options and dispense water somewhat arbitrarily. This strikes me as a major break in the chain of public health and personal hygiene.
Mind you, I understand that people are unwilling to stay home when they have tickets for a live performance, especially when no exchange or refund is offered. I can’t hit the, “if you don’t feel well, stay home” note very strongly, as it falls on deaf ears (though we can dream). However, in my more controlling moments, I do wish we could require anyone who coughs or sneezes more than once during a performance or screening to wear a surgical mask; if we go masked at Sleep No More, why should there be any stigma about obscuring one’s nose and mouth in public for the benefit of others (I once saw a show which passed medical masks out to the audience, but for effect, not prophylaxis). And while we all wish the coughers in particular would stay home, as they disturb both the audience and performers in live theatres, I recall in years past Ricola sponsoring bins of cough drops at classical concert venues; perhaps that effort could be renewed or expanded in an effort to silence those around us.
But let’s start with the basics. Even though the production of hot water has a real expense, I think theatre owners and operators might push the thermostat on the hot water heater up to a minimally therapeutic level (whatever that may be) during a national epidemic, at least. Aside from helping to stem disease, which is no small matter, you’ll please your patrons and keep theatres busier because, as someone surely said at some point: warm hands, warm hearts. And I imagine we’d all rather be producing hits instead of illness.