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London’s cultural landmarks shutter amid coronavirus threat

[LONDON] Last week, the lights went out on Broadway. On Monday, London's West End — the last global theater stronghold to remain open through the growing coronavirus pandemic — went dark.

London's performance spaces were some of the last to shut down among their international counterparts, as arts institutions across the United States and Europe — New York's dozens of theaters, Italy's famed Teatro alla Scala opera house, Paris' Louvre museum — all shut their doors amid the virus' rapid spread.

But after Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain urged patrons to avoid theaters and other crowded public spaces in a speech Monday afternoon, cultural mainstays across the United Kingdom began to follow suit.

"Now is the time for everyone to stop nonessential contact with others and to stop all unnecessary travel," Mr Johnson said in the speech. "We need people to start working from home where they possibly can. And you should avoid pubs, clubs, theaters and other such social venues."

After the speech, it was announced that some prominent theaters would temporarily close. The Royal Court, in London, said in a statement on Twitter that many in Britain's art world "will struggle to weather the crisis" and urged financial support.

Within hours, the entire West End had shut down, including the Royal Opera House.

The Society of London Theater and UK Theater, two trade bodies that represent independent commercial theaters in London, cited "official government advice" in shuttering their venues. The theaters will stay dark indefinitely.

"Closing venues is not a decision that is taken lightly, and we know that this will have a severe impact on many of the 290,000 individuals working in our industry," Julian Bird, the chief executive of both trade bodies, said in a statement Monday.

Faiz Gafoor, 60, was outside the Shaftesbury Theater, one of the society's venues in the West End, when he learned the performance he had tickets to that evening — "& Juliet," a jukebox musical that led this year's Olivier Award nominations — would not go on. The performance had been "cancelled in line with government advice," read a sign posted on the door of the theater.

"We're from South Africa on holiday and very disappointed," Gafoor said. "We asked on Sunday when we purchased the tickets, and they said it'd be OK. They should have sorted it earlier."

Claire Parker, 27, came to the Shaftesbury to see "& Juliet" for the 17th time. "I'm devastated," she said. "Some of my friends have travelled two hours to be here." Instead, they planned to stand outside and sing through the show's soundtrack, Parker added.

The Royal Opera House, in announcing its immediate closure Monday, added that it would begin broadcasting free performances online. The venue, which did not specify when it may reopen, was one of several opera houses to cancel or postpone performances after the prime minister's speech, including the English National Opera, the Welsh National Opera and the Scottish Opera.

"This suspension of performances will impact not only our loyal audience but also our committed and talented work force," Alex Beard, the chief executive of the Royal Opera House, said in a statement Monday. "We will work within the government guidelines to ensure the safety and well-being of our staff and artists during this difficult time. Our employees, permanent and casual, are reliant on the income, which we derive through ticket purchases."

And Sadler's Wells, one of London's primary dance theaters, also cancelled performances at its three venues for up to 12 weeks. The organization hopes to resume performances by June 9, it said in a statement Monday — noting that the timing could change depending on further guidance from the government.

But there was still some uncertainty among Britain's other cultural venues. The British Museum was still waiting for clarity from the government on whether it should close, a spokeswoman said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Tate — which operates the popular Tate Modern and Tate Britain museums — was also uncertain about whether it had to close. (An employee at the Tate Modern tested positive for the coronavirus last week, The Art Newspaper reported.)

The prime minister's order to stay away from theaters and pubs was a warning for the British public, not necessarily for institutions, but a meeting will be held on Tuesday between Britain's culture ministry and museums, where some expect a closure to be ordered.