Ann was scared. The freelance opera singer, who lives just outside New York City, had just learned that the gig she was in production for had shut down due to the coronavirus crisis, that she would no longer be getting paid—and that an even better-paying gig for June would likely fold as well.
“That June contract was going to be a big chunk of my 2020 income,” says Ann, who asked to use her middle name because, she says, “My story is just one of hundreds right now, and I don’t need the attention on myself.”
What’s more, she says, she was unsure how to meet not only regular expenses like phone bills and groceries but any unexpected medical costs that could be on the horizon.
Then she got an email from her union saying that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (BCEFA), the longstanding performing arts assistance nonprofit, and its partner, The Actors Fund, had started a COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Fund for anyone in the performing arts community (onstage, backstage, or adjacent) who was facing financial insecurity and could document (mainly via check stubs or contracts) that they had earned at least $6,000 in the industry in the past year.
Ann applied, had a phone interview, was asked to show some documentation—and in less than two weeks, had $1,500 to put toward her expenses. “I have a lot of student loan debt, so I just made a payment on that today,” she says. “The money was a lifesaver, because it helped ease my burden in these crazy times.”
Ann is not alone. According to Tom Viola, longtime head of BCEFA, last week, this week, and hopefully next week, the group has been sending $500,000 increments to The Actors Fund, which administers and disburses the grants—and which, says Viola, has been beset with more than 5,000 requests for assistance in the past 10 days—more, he says, than are usually received in an entire year.
“We want to be able to keep putting fuel in their engines so they can keep responding to the demand,” he says.
Just a few of the fulfilled demands, according to a BCEFA press release, include insurance assistance for a diabetic musician who lost all his gigs, food and rental assistance for actor parents with two young children and third on the way, and temporary housing for a director to self-quarantine after learning she’d been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
On March 24, BCEFA announced that more than 20 high-powered Broadway producers including Scott Rudin, Daryl Roth, and her son, Jordan Roth, had pledged to match all donations to the fund up to $1 million. As of March 26, the fund had just exceeded $1 million, with a goal of $2 million by April 12.
The funds are not only directly going to needy people in the performance community but also will allow BCEFA to maintain its funding commitment to more than 470 mostly HIV-related social service agencies and nonprofits nationwide, to which BCEFA last year collectively gave $8.1 million, in addition to the $6.3 million it gave to The Actors Fund for direct assistance. According to Viola, the emergency fund will hopefully help replace what BCEFA is losing due to the cancellation of popular upcoming IRL annual benefits, including Broadway Backwards (in which performers reverse gender roles on showtune classics) and the campily delightful Easter Bonnet Competition.
Viola stressed that the emergency fund will take applications from anyone who can document that they made at least $6,000 last year in any aspect of the performance industry, including nightlife entertainers like drag queens—some of whom are paid in cash. “Nobody will be just rejected out of hand,” Viola assures. “There would be a conversation. But you have to prove that you’ve earned income that way. Basically, you need to have gotten checks for playing some role in helping to make a show or performance happen.”
Actors Fund staffers handling the requests are “triaging” them into two categories, says Viola—those who need immediate help with rent and health coverage payments and those who are facing a financial shortfall in the coming weeks or months.
BCEFA/The Actors Fund is also providing two other essential services besides direct cash grants. One is counseling and social services for performance-community people who are stressed and could benefit from being connected to other services, including health coverage they may not currently have. Under the Actors’ Equity union, performers must work 11 weeks to qualify for union insurance—and for some performers, the corona crisis shut down their shows just before they met that requirement.
“You’d be surprised at how many people in the community don’t have health coverage,” says Viola, even in New York State, with its fairly expansive Medicaid program. (It’s also worth noting that New York State of Health, the state’s Obamacare market exchange, has opened for emergency enrollment amid the coronavirus crisis.)
Staffers at The Actors Fund are on hand remotely to help make these connections. Viola says that Actors Fund staffers helped him make the complicated transition to Medicare when he turned 65 recently.
The Actors Fund also wholly supports the Friedman Health Center, a full-service, LGBTQ- and HIV-specializing clinic affiliated with the Mount Sinai Health System that has a special subsidy for uninsured performance-community patients but will see anyone with some form of coverage. Currently, clinic staff are assessing many sick patients using the MyChart telehealth platform, says Friedman director Jason Kindt, D.O. The sickest—those with high fever and shortness of breath, who appear to need to be hospitalized—are sent to be tested for COVID-19 at Mount Sinai’s designated COVID-19 testing center.
“The flow of patients into all the Mount Sinai outpatient centers has decreased,” he says, “but my messages from sick patients,” via calls to Friedman or MyChart, “have rocketed.”
Kindt says he has seen some COVID-19 cases where people appear to be getting better, but then fever or respiratory symptoms return around Day 9 or 10. He recounts the tale of a 57-year-old male patient with controlled high blood pressure who reported he was sick on March 4 and appeared to be getting better by March 9, but called back three days later to say that his fever had re-spiked to 103 degrees and that he was getting winded. The patient was sent to the ER, was intubated on March 10, and died on March 17.
“That hit home and made this very real for us,” says Kindt. But he also adds that he’s seen no especially bad outcomes in COVID-19 patients with well-managed HIV. “They seem to do the same as the general population,” he says.
Kindt says he wishes that testing were more widespread and not limited to those with hospitalization-worthy symptoms. “For one thing,” he says, “when a test comes back positive, it makes it real for people and they’re more militant about quarantining themselves. Also, we need data when all is said and done to figure out how this spreads and who’s vulnerable, and the more people who get tested, the more data we have.”
Viola says that he sees the work that BCEFA/The Actors Fund is doing now with COVID-19 as an extension of BCEFA’s 30-year legacy of supporting the performance community in times of health crisis. Since the height of the AIDS crisis in the early to mid-1990s, the organization has become iconic on Broadway for the bright red “please give” buckets that Broadway cast members wield at the exits to packed shows—a tactic that, in addition to its beloved and glitzy benefits like the quasi-nude Broadway Bares, has brought in more than $210 million for the cause since 1988. (Full disclosure: This writer has sometimes alerted small, struggling HIV nonprofits in the South and Midwest to BCEFA’s steady and generous cycles of financial assistance.)
According to Viola, the emergency fund, galvanized by the generous contributions of big Broadway producers, is the only way that the organization can go on bringing in money in this troubled moment. “When the theaters were closed last week by order of Gov. Cuomo, all our nightly showtime fundraising and special events were canceled or postponed along with it,” he says.
“There was literally nothing we could do to raise funds that didn’t involve us gathering. But at that exact moment, we knew that The Actors Fund would be called upon for both emergency financial assistance and connection to needed services.”
Hence, the emergency fund began. As of March 26, nearly 4,000 people had donated to it. And it was already providing a much-needed financial lifeline to scared and uncertain performing-arts professionals like Ann—people who bring New Yorkers and visitors alike untold delight every night in normal times, yet who often fly without a financial safety net as a consequence of doing what they love.
“We singers are so health-conscious anyway,” she says, “because if we get sick and have to cancel a job, we don’t get paid. So we’re all hoping that things get back to normal as quickly as possible—but right now, the most important thing is stopping the virus and minimizing deaths. Jobs are important, but lives are more important.”