“The Phantom of the Opera” has garnered plenty of superlatives over the years, including the longest-running show in Broadway history. But in recent months, it has also laid claim to a more unlikely title: pathbreaking musical of the Covid-19 era.As theaters around the globe were abruptly shuttered by the pandemic, with no clear path to reopening in sight, the world tour of “Phantom” has been soldiering on in Seoul, South Korea, playing eight shows a week. And it has been drawing robust audiences to its 1600-seat theater, even after an outbreak in the ensemble led to a mandatory three-week shutdown in April.The musical, with its 126-member company and hundreds of costumes and props, is believed to be the only large-scale English-language production running anywhere in the world. And it has remained open not through social-distancing measures — a virtual impossibility in the theater, either logistically or financially, many say — but an approach grounded in strict hygiene.ImageA clerk checking a mobile ticket before the show.Credit…Woohae Cho for The New York TimesImageTheater staff check the body temperature of attendees at the entrance foyer.Credit…Woohae Cho for The New York TimesImageAudience members leave the theater, at which everyone is required to wear a mask.Credit…Woohae Cho for The New York TimesAnd it’s one that its composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, is arguing can show the way for the rest of the industry, a point he is hoping to demonstrate to the world, as he prepares to turn the Palladium, one of seven theaters he owns in London, into a laboratory for lessons learned in Seoul.“I don’t think we should just be sitting on our hands and saying, it’s all doom and gloom, we can’t do anything,” he said in an interview last week. “We have got to make the theaters as safe for everybody as we possibly can,” he said. And South Korea, he said, shows that it can work.That the show, at the Blue Square cultural complex in central Seoul, has gone on is a testament not just to the protocols in the theater, but to South Korea’s rigorous system of test, trace and quarantine, which has kept the virus largely under control.It was also a matter of sheer timing and luck, though it didn’t seem that way at first.When the tour’s previous stop in Busan, South Korea’s second biggest city, wrapped up in mid-February, the country was emerging as the latest epicenter of the pandemic.The company mostly went home for a break to Britain, Italy, North America, Australia and elsewhere. Serin Kasif, vice president of Lloyd Webber’s company, the Really Useful Group, and the producer of the tour, said she was fielding daily messages from company members anxious about whether to return.On March 2, when Kasif flew to Seoul to begin preparations to open there, South Korea had the second-highest number of confirmed cases, and the pandemic had not yet fully hit Britain.She contrasted the “overwhelming sense of fear” that developed in London with what she had experienced in Seoul, with its clear governmental directives and local partners who had lived through previous epidemics like SARS.“When I was speaking to our Korean partners, in lead-up to the decision to continue, one said, ‘The word “unprecedented” keeps getting used, but it’s not unprecedented here,’ ” she explained.“Amazingly,” Kasif said, the entire company returned to Seoul. Matt Leisy, a Northwestern University graduate who plays Raoul, said that when he went home to New York during the break, friends were “freaking out” at the idea that he might go back to Korea. But he said he was reassured by the producers’ constant communication about safety protocols, as well as their videos of daily life in Seoul.“It was quite scary leading up to us coming back,” he said. “Who knew we’d end up being in the safest place in the world?”The protocols, which are mandated by the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are strict, but they are not particularly space-age. Before entering the theater, audience members are sprayed with a light mist of disinfectant. Thermal sensors take each person’s temperature, and everyone fills out a questionnaire about symptoms and recent places they’ve visited, so they can be notified of any exposures they may have had through the country’s contract-tracing app.ImageSharon Williams, the head of wardrobe.Credit…Tom MrazImageClaire van Bever, a dancer in the production, with Chris Coles.Credit…Tom MrazThere are hand-sanitizing stations throughout, and ubiquitous signs and announcements reminding everyone that masks must be worn at all times. And in contrast to movie theaters, where alternating rows or seats are left empty, no seats are blocked off (though the first row was removed).Backstage, there’s a similar drill: no embracing, no handshakes, no inessential physical contact. Reusable water bottles are forbidden, along with sharing food. Wigs, props and costumes are regularly sprayed or wiped with antibacterial cloths. Everyone must wear a mask, except for actors when they are being made up or go onstage, and some members of the orchestra.Sharon Williams, the head of wardrobe, said that masks and “constant hand-washing” aside, protocols for the 17-member costume department are not that different than they would be normally, beyond extra cycles of high-temperature washing with anti-bacterial soap.The crucial element, she said, is the whole company’s rigorous cooperation. “No one is saying ‘I’m not going to do it,’” she said.As for the onstage action, Kasif said there have been no modifications — and yes, Raoul and Christine still kiss.Which isn’t to say the actors haven’t had nerve-racking moments. Leisy said initially he was “hyperaware” of all the saliva flying around the stage, especially in big numbers like the Act Two showstopper “Masquerade.”“When I enunciate, the spit really flies out of my mouth,” he said. “At one point, we’re all dancing and singing our faces off and I look around and see all this saliva flying. I thought, ‘My goodness!’”
Updated June 1, 2020
How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?
Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.
My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?
States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?
More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.
Can I go to the park?
Yes, but make sure you keep six feet of distance between you and people who don’t live in your home. Even if you just hang out in a park, rather than go for a jog or a walk, getting some fresh air, and hopefully sunshine, is a good idea.
How do I take my temperature?
Taking one’s temperature to look for signs of fever is not as easy as it sounds, as “normal” temperature numbers can vary, but generally, keep an eye out for a temperature of 100.5 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. If you don’t have a thermometer (they can be pricey these days), there are other ways to figure out if you have a fever, or are at risk of Covid-19 complications.
Should I wear a mask?
The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
How do I get tested?
If you’re sick and you think you’ve been exposed to the new coronavirus, the C.D.C. recommends that you call your healthcare provider and explain your symptoms and fears. They will decide if you need to be tested. Keep in mind that there’s a chance — because of a lack of testing kits or because you’re asymptomatic, for instance — you won’t be able to get tested.
How can I help?
Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities using a numbers-based system, has a running list of nonprofits working in communities affected by the outbreak. You can give blood through the American Red Cross, and World Central Kitchen has stepped in to distribute meals in major cities.
(The first row of seats is a seemingly safe 5.2 meters from the edge of the stage, according to a video issued by the show’s Korean producer in early May detailing the safety precautions.)ImageTanya Miles, left, and Jonathan Roxmouth, who plays the Phantom.Credit…Tom MrazThe run, which has been extended until August (after the touring production of “War Horse” set to follow in the same theater canceled), has not been without its bumps. In late March, about two weeks after the show opened, one of the show’s ballerinas said she wasn’t feeling well. She was tested, and the result — positive — was back by 9 a.m. the next morning.Authorities moved swiftly to lock down the theater and check if all guidelines were being followed. A mobile testing unit was installed on the roof of the apartment building where the cast and nonlocal crew live, and everyone was immediately tested both for active virus and antibodies. (A male ensemble member also tested positive but remained asymptomatic.)All 76 members of the touring company were quarantined for 15 days in their apartments. The local employees were also tested, and quarantined at home. (A local production of “Dracula: The Musical” also decided to suspend performances in this period, in response to the outbreak at “Phantom,” according to local news reports.)In keeping with local policies, the more than 8,000 people who had seen “Phantom” received text messages through the country’s tracing app, informing them of the outbreak. But a public announcement also made it clear that all protocols had been followed.Kasif suggested the fact that the virus had not spread more widely in the company was proof, at least “anecdotally,” as she put it, that the protocols work.“The ballerinas are a very close ensemble,” she said. “They share a dressing room, warm up together, perform together, warm down together. They happen to be very good friends socially. So if the guidelines weren’t working, on paper they all should have had coronavirus.”The show reopened on April 23, and ticket sales have been about 70 to 85 percent full since, Kasif said. Even last Thursday, when a spike in cases in the country led authorities to close all public museums, galleries and entertainment venues across greater Seoul until June 15, the seats were mostly full, according to a reporter who attended. (Publicists for the show declined to provide box office information.)Private venues, like the Blue Square, were allowed to remain open, and “Phantom” continues to operate “in accordance with KCDC guidelines and instructions,” Kasif said in a statement.Several audience members expressed concern about the spike, but said they trusted the theater’s measures and the country’s larger public health response.Yi-seul Lee, 28, a graphic designer, had seen the musical in March and said she didn’t want to miss the chance to see it again. “Unless we shout very loudly while watching the show or take off our masks, I think we are more or less safe,” she said.Still, some fans thought the uncertainties of the pandemic had dampened spirits a bit. In-hae Bae, 36, a human resources manager who was seeing “Phantom” for the sixth time, said that every time the actors embraced, the virus popped into her head. And the applause at the curtain call, she said, seemed “timid.”“They were way too calm,” she said of the audience. “It made me think, ‘Coronavirus must have strangled our passion, too.’”Jennifer Schuessler reported from New York, and Su-Hyun Lee from Seoul.