How the Coronavirus Pandemic Is Crippling the Entertainment Industry

Things are bad and it's only going to get worse for the arts

Empty movie theater

By the time you read this, your life has been meaningfully affected by the global outbreak of coronavirus (COVID-19). Maybe the concert you were looking forward to this week got canceled. Maybe you’re terrified to travel to your friend’s now-imperiled wedding. Maybe you’re trying not to go full The Shining while working from home in self-imposed quarantine with your spouse and a doomsday supply of toilet paper. Maybe your relative or loved one has already become ill.

Or maybe you’re a working musician whose primary source of income—touring—has been abruptly cut off for the next, well, who knows how many months. While it’s far too soon to know the full impact, the ongoing pandemic—and the resulting shutdown of the daily rhythms of public life—has already crippled the entertainment industry for the indefinite future. It’s bleak. Festivals are postponed. Arena tours are canceled. Broadway’s gone dark. The NBA is on hold. Movie theaters are now half-empty caverns of disinfectant wipes. Italy is on lockdown. Colleges are sending their students home. The financial impact on arts and culture scenes nationwide is likely to be severe.

The reason is simple: The coronavirus, like the flu, spreads very easily, traveling through the air in the form of tiny respiratory droplets produced by a sick person. It is significantly more contagious than SARS. Crowds and public gatherings provide the easiest settings for mass transmission, and, of course, crowds and public gatherings are the engines of any arts and culture scene. In cities around the country, performances and gatherings have ground to an unprecedented halt.

As of this writing, the virus outbreak has spread to 48 U.S. states and has been formally declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, with approximately 150,000 known cases worldwide. More than 2,000 Americans have tested positive for the virus, including a beloved Hollywood icon; experts say that many more likely have it but haven’t been tested. (It can take five days or more for symptoms to appear.) Most people who contract coronavirus experience routine flu-like symptoms and recover fairly easily, but more vulnerable individuals (particularly the elderly and anyone with a major underlying health condition) risk serious symptoms or even death.

William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist who serves as Professor of Preventive Medicine in the Department of Health Policy at Vanderbilt, says he’s astonished at how quickly the country’s cultural institutions have responded to the pandemic.

“The social distancing recommendation has been remarkably accepted across the country,” Schaffner says. “It’s been absolutely stunning. And I hope and wish that it will have some impact in reducing the spread of this virus in our communities. Because that’s the whole purpose of these activities. But they do have social and economic costs. And some people are gonna get hurt. And that’s not a good thing. So we’re going to want to get back to normal as quickly as possible.”

“The other side of the coin is that we have not organized ourselves as a public health system and as a clinical system to provide the extent of testing that we should be doing,” Schaffner adds. “And we’re slowly gearing up with all kinds of moans and groans to do that.”

Here’s an overview of the various sectors of the entertainment industry that have been most affected by coronavirus and what’s been shut down.


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