In early March, Aaron Tveit felt like he was coming down with a cold. The 36-year-old actor, who had spent the last eight months on Broadway playing Christian in “Moulin Rouge! The Musical,” thought it might be spring allergies.
Only a few weeks ago, there were conflicting reports about COVID-19 in the United States. But the producers of “Moulin Rouge!” wanted to be cautious. They huddled with the cast to tell them they were taking extra measures: not allowing guests backstage; asking crowds at the stage door to hold out their playbills for autographs, so they wouldn’t be passing germs back and forth. Tveit refrained from going out to meet with fans that week because of his runny nose.
Then on March 12, the Broadway community discovered how serious the coronavirus pandemic would be. That Thursday afternoon, New York state officials closed all 31 musicals and plays to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.
A few days later, Tveit – who was self-isolating as a precaution in his Astoria apartment — learned that two of his cast members in “Moulin Rouge!” had tested positive for COVD-19. He was starting to feel worn down, and the show’s producers helped him get tested. Finally, a week after that, he was diagnosed as one of the early cases in New York. (Since then, more than 215,000 people in the United States have tested positive, and 5,000 people have died. Both figures are expected to steeply climb in the coming months.)
While Tveit’s symptoms were minor, he thought it would be helpful to share his story and stress the importance of social distancing. Over a recent phone call, he talked to Variety about what it felt like for him to have coronavirus.
When did you first start to experience flu-like symptoms?
That week of March 12, on Monday and Tuesday, I felt a little bit of cold symptoms. Nothing more than a stuffy nose; allergies. I thought nothing of it. Then on Thursday, we were told at a company meeting that one person had been feeling all of the symptoms and had gone to be tested. As a result, they were being proactive and cancelling our matinee. And then, an hour after our meeting, the government’s mandate in New York came down and all of Broadway was cancelled by 5 p.m. I went home on Thursday, knowing I had been directly or indirectly in the building with someone who was feeling this. I started my own quarantine that night, treating it like I had it.
Then what happened?
On Saturday, I went to an ENT to get checked out. They said it was viral – no flags were raised – and they gave me an IV drip, electrolytes. I felt better. On Sunday, we found out not just one person had it, but two people in the cast tested positive. And then our producers went into immediate action. They availed anyone who was in direct or indirect contact with them to be able to be tested. At that point, I had cold symptoms and a little bit of a cough. I was feeling a little bit of fatigue. I thought, “Why don’t I go in and get tested?”
Was it hard to get a test?
Our producers acted swiftly to make that happen. There is a doctor who works with the Broadway community, and it turns out the doctor had the test.
Did you have any other symptoms?
I felt lethargic. I never had the shortness of breath or fever that people were talking about. But then, very interestingly, I completely lost my sense of smell and taste.
Was that gradual?
It happened really fast. All of a sudden one day, I realized I couldn’t taste my food. It was so drastic. This was before I got my results back. I was like, “Oh I have this.” And then I was reading online certain diseases can implant themselves on your sinuses. I’m sure you’ve had a cold before where if you blow your nose, you can smell again. But this was not that. And the other thing, the week that I was feeling the worst I felt, to me it felt like I had chlorine up my nose. For five or six days, I felt like I had pool water up my nose.
Did you have a fever?
You know when you have a low fever and you’re too cold or too hot in your bed? I had one night when I woke up. After that, I got a thermometer and I never had a fever.
When did you finally get your results?
It took me a full week. By the time I got my results, I was feeling like the symptoms were almost gone. Because I started my quarantine when the show ended, the day I got my results I was on day 12 of my quarantine. Even when your quarantine ends, nothing really changes. I still haven’t seen my parents. I’m trying to be overly cautious as much as I can. I posted something on Instagram about it.
Why was it important for you to tell people about your diagnosis?
I’m quite a private person and I would generally not put something out about my health. I wanted to put forward that this is such a serious thing. You could not have a fever, you could not have a shortness of breath, you could not have this dry cough, and you could still be positive. I wanted to share my experience and say this is a very serious. You have to pay attention to this right now.
Not everyone took this seriously at first.
I think everybody jokes that March felt like a year. There was new information every day. I just had the mentality that even if there was a chance that I was exposed, I tried to reign in the social circle and isolate before I knew anyone had it around me.
Are you 100 percent better?
I’m 21 days into this. I say that I’m 95 percent better. My cough is totally gone. My nose doesn’t hurt. I can taste and smell fully. I have tons of energy. I have been able to, in my apartment, get back to working out. I don’t have the symptoms anymore.
But you’re still isolating from others?
Yeah. I was watching a video of a man in Singapore who is on day 25. In Singapore, they have such widely available testing, they are testing him every morning. Nobody knows how long you’re contagious. I think everybody needs to take everything seriously. Go these extra miles now to stay away from people. This is the time to do it, because — frankly — there’s nothing else to do. Go overboard.
Broadway has never experienced a shutdown like this before. What does it feel like to be part of the theater community when there’s so much uncertainty?
It’s been a really tough time. I think there are so many questions. Everything is a question: When? What? How? For the Broadway community specifically, I think everybody just feels unsure. There are shows that have just opened and yet to open that are hanging in the balance. We don’t know when we will be going to work. Will people be interested in coming? I did a little video to be part of the amazing “Rosie O’Donnell Show” to raise money for the Actors Fund. And the work that Broadway Cares is doing, the Broadway community really steps up to raise money for people who are down and out. It’s this crucial time when people are really in need.
Will “Moulin Rouge!” be coming back?
Yes, as far as I know. Our producers have said we will be back. I feel very grateful for that. I have friends who have friends in Asia in shows that have re-opened. The audience there have been flocking to shows. Live theater in its best sense is something that you can go to and disappear and get out of reality. In a community like New York, Broadway is such a wonderful escape for everyone trying to get back normalcy. I certainly believe that — and hope it’s the case once we’re on the other side of this.