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In New York, Masks Will Not Be Required at the Opera or Ballet

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Masks are no longer required in New York City schools, gyms, taxis and most theaters. But a night at the opera or the ballet still involves putting on a proper face covering.

That will soon change. Several of the city’s leading performing arts organizations — including the Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic and New York City Ballet — announced on Monday that masks would now be optional, citing demands from audience members and a recent decline in coronavirus cases.

“The time has come to move on,” Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said in an interview.

The Met, Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic will end mask requirements on Oct. 24, along with Film at Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School. The David H. Koch Theater, home to City Ballet, will follow on Nov. 1. Two venues on the Lincoln Center campus, the Mitzi E. Newhouse and Claire Tow theaters, will maintain their mandates.

The decision is a milestone for classical, dance and opera institutions, which had been among the most resistant to relaxing mask rules — wary of alienating older patrons, who represent a large share of ticket buyers. As coronavirus infections have declined and masks have vanished from many other settings, arts groups are feeling pressure from audiences to make a change.

At the Met, for example, only about a quarter of ticket buyers said in a survey last month that they would feel uncomfortable attending a performance if masks were optional. Over the summer, that number had been close to 70 percent.

“People’s attitudes are changing,” Gelb said. He hoped that relaxing the rules would help make the Met more accessible to “younger audiences who really don’t want to wear a mask.” With the elimination of the mandate, the company will also reopen its bars, many of which have remained closed during the pandemic.

Proof of vaccination, as well as masks, were required to gain entry to many venues starting last year, when arts organizations returned to the stage after a long shutdown. Over the summer, however, as hospitalizations and deaths declined, many groups began to ease their rules. Broadway theaters (with a few exceptions) dropped the vaccine requirement on May 1, and the mask mandate on July 1.

While most classical, opera and dance groups eliminated the vaccine requirement this fall, many kept in place strict mask mandates on the advice of medical advisers. The question of masks posed a challenge for many groups; they risked alienating some ticket buyers, no matter how they proceeded.

At the Met, stage managers have delivered announcements from the stage before each performance reminding audiences to keep masks on for the duration of opera. At Carnegie Hall, ushers have checked each row and called out people who were not wearing masks.

Clive Gillinson, Carnegie’s executive and artistic director, said that the hall kept mask rules in place this fall because of lingering concerns about the virus among some medical advisers and audience members. But it decided to make a change after medical advisers said it could operate safely without masks, and after complaints from the audience were growing.

“Ushers were finding it actually quite difficult because a lot of people were very annoyed having to still wear masks when in most of their lives they’re no longer doing so,” Gillinson said in an interview.

By eliminating the mask rules, arts leaders hope they can help restore a sense of normalcy at a time when many groups are struggling to recover from the turmoil of the pandemic. While live performance is flourishing once again in New York and across the United States, audiences have been slow to return.

Deborah Borda, the president and chief executive of the Philharmonic, said in an interview that the mask rules could change if the virus emerged as a deadly threat once again.

“This is an ever-evolving situation,” she said. “We will stay on top of whatever the current medical protocol dictates.”

But for now, she said, it is time to change focus.

“We feel it’s important that we do our part to help the city return to a much more normal state of affairs,” she said, “and to encourage people to come back into the city and to reinvigorate the economy.”