Hale Centre Theatre suspends production of ‘Mary Poppins’ after second cast member contracts COVID-19

(Photo courtesy of Hale Centre Theatre) The ensemble of Hale Centre Theatre's production of the musical "Mary Poppins" performs. The production, which debuted July 1, 2020, was suspended because a second cast member tested positive for COVID-19, the company announced Thursday, July 16, 2020.

Hale Centre Theatre — the first live theater troupe in Salt Lake County to start packing in audiences since the COVID-19 pandemic began — is suspending performances of the musical “Mary Poppins,” after a second cast member tested positive for the disease, the company announced Thursday.

The suspension comes after a complaint filed with the county health department Wednesday said there was a scarcity of sanitizing wipes at the theater and that it sometimes ran out of disinfecting supplies.

Performances are “temporarily suspended,” the company announced in a Facebook post, and are scheduled to resume on Tuesday, July 28.

“We’ve been working closely with the Salt Lake County Health Department to prioritize the safety of both our patrons and employees and to keep artisans employed in this unprecedented time,” Mark Dietlein, the theater’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

The company is helping the Salt Lake County Health Department with contact tracing of people who might have been exposed to the two symptomatic cast members.

The first case of a Hale cast member contracting COVID-19 was announced July 9, in a comment to another post on the theater’s Facebook page.

That cast member had been away from the theater since July 2, Dietlein told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday, and tested positive on July 8. Contact tracing was not performed, the theater said, because the actor had not been in the building for several days.

The first performance of “Mary Poppins” was on July 1 in Hale’s 911-seat Centre Stage theater-in-the-round, in the massive theater complex that opened in November 2017, facing Interstate 15 in Sandy. The musical “Bright Star” opened June 26 in the complex’s 467-seat Jewel Box Stage theater, and will continue to run while “Mary Poppins” is closed.

“Mary Poppins” went dark Monday through Wednesday this week, for what Dietlein said was an unrelated issue: A featured actor was out of town, and the actor playing the role in the alternate cast — most Hale productions are double-cast — was caring for a sick family member.

Dietlein said in late June, just before “Mary Poppins” opened, that the company was “following what the state guidelines allowed us to do,” both backstage and in the audience.

Hale has been seating patrons shoulder-to-shoulder, much as they did before the pandemic, though all theatergoers have been required to wear masks. The plan differs from what other venues have done; for example, the Megaplex Theaters movie houses have left alternate rows empty, and put a three-seat buffer between family groups.

Hale’s ticket plan met the state’s color-coded safety guidelines, which say an indoor gathering of fewer than 3,000 people is allowed in a “yellow” zone — which covers Salt Lake County, except for Salt Lake City, which is still in the more-restricted “orange” category — if everyone is wearing a face covering, a Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman said.

One recently departed crew member expressed concern with how Hale’s management was carrying out safety protocols backstage.

“I didn’t feel like they were taking people’s safety seriously, and so I didn’t want to be there any more,” said Liz Joyner, who quit her job as a spotlight operator at Hale last week — a day before Hale management disclosed the first cast member’s COVID-19 diagnosis.

For example, Joyner said, management ordered spotlight operators to sanitize the auditorium’s fabric seats between shows — but the seats were not getting fully sanitized. “They’re just wiping down the armrests,” she said. “It’s one Lysol wipe for every 10 seats.”

Other current or former employees also told the Tribune that the theater has at times run out of sanitation supplies. They requested anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation from Hale supporters.

Dietlein disputed that claim. “We have adequate supplies and have not run out,” he said.

The theater contracted with a professional cleaning company, Dietlein said, and added one position “for the sole purpose of cleaning and sanitizing high-touch areas.” Also, “safety protocols are the duty of every employee,” he added, and “employees have generally responded positively to the opportunity to create a safer environment.”

The complaint filed Wednesday also raised backstage issues, claiming alternating casts mingle between the matinee and afternoon shows on Saturdays, with no room for social distancing.

Before the theater closed in March, Dietlein said, the casts and crew of the alternating shows would eat together and share spaces. The theater’s COVID-19 plan, he said, “separates cast [and] crew at all times other than using the same entrance to the theater.”

Actors’ Equity Association, the union for stage actors, has yet to allow its members to accept contracts for new live productions anywhere in the country, except for two theaters in Massachusetts. Hale, which operates as a nonprofit community theater, sometimes uses Equity actors, but mostly uses non-union performers — and hires them as independent contractors.

Union member William Richardson, a Utah actor and stage manager, was critical of Hale’s decision to mount the production in a pandemic.

“You have these dancers in these heavy period costumes, doing this athletic ‘Mary Poppins’ choreography, and they’re just sweating with no masks on, just singing out — which is the most dangerous thing you can do,” said Richardson, who has worked with Salt Lake Acting Company and other troupes.

Hale has its defenders. Josh Richardson, an actor now appearing in “Bright Star” on Hale’s Jewel Box Stage (and not related to William), said in an email Wednesday that “the team at Hale is doing everything they can to provide a safe atmosphere for employees and patrons. I feel as safe at Hale as I do in any grocery store, office building or anywhere else outside of my own home.”

The shutdown ordered after Thursday’s announcement of a second “Mary Poppins” actor contracting COVID-19, Richardson added, “shows me that they are serious about adhering to their safety procedures.” Richardson added that he will still perform in “Bright Star” at Hale “until I’m told otherwise. We’ll do our best with the information we have, and we’ll course correct as we learn more.”

Odds are that any large audience in Salt Lake County will have somebody with COVID-19, according to a county-by-county tracking tool developed at Georgia Tech. The COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool calculates that the probability of a person with COVID-19 being in a group of 500 people in Salt Lake County at greater than 99%.

Dietlein said reopening has been “challenging, but theater brings hope.”

“We respect that not everyone is ready to come back,” Dietlein said. “As Utah reopens its economy, we recognize our role as a theater to bring hope, relief and joy.”