Over the past weekend, rap duo City Girls performed to a packed, largely maskless, Tallahassee, Florida club that lost its liquor license last summer for flouting pandemic health guidelines. The footage from the risky and careless concert looked like something you might see in largely COVID-19-free places like Wuhan, China or New Zealand—not in a coronavirus hotspot ranking in the top six Florida counties in new cases per 100,000 residents. For music fans, it felt like yet another reminder of how far away the safe return of live music really is.
With a painfully slow vaccine rollout and the past two weeks showing a decreasing yet still sky-high average of 146,486 new daily cases nationwide, Dr. Fauci's January prediction that concerts and theaters could return “some time in the fall of 2021” if everything goes right seems less likely each day.
That doesn't mean there isn't reason for hope. Thanks to the Save Our Stages Act's inclusion in the omnibus stimulus package passed late last year, independent venues are finally getting the bailout they so desperately needed. Plus, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines appear to be extremely effective, with data showing they eliminated deaths and nearly eliminated hospitalizations in trials with public results. But even with shots that are safe and effective, there is still a lot of work to be done before people can start seeing shows again.
“The challenge is the vaccine rollout has been slow, with more people that need the vaccine than there are vaccines available,” said Dr. Danielle Ompad, an associate professor of epidemiology specializing in infectious diseases at NYU's School of Global Public Health. To make matters worse, though experts estimate anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of people need to be vaccinated for communities to achieve herd immunity, the number of people who are willing to get vaccinated may fall short of that goal. “It also doesn't seem like enough people are willing and interested in getting the vaccine to achieve anything close to herd immunity,” she said. “If people want the world to go back to the way it was a year and a half ago, we're gonna have to cooperate.”
VICE interviewed Dr. Ompad last summer, when coronavirus cases were hovering around 50,000 per day and artists like Chase Rice, Vanilla Ice, and others were hosting maskless, not-socially distanced concerts that were potential superspreader events. This year, she says, things feel almost riskier. “Because there are complications that we didn't have last summer, I'm not that hopeful for live concerts to return for at least another year—at least ones that I would feel safe going to,” said Dr. Ompad. “There's the reduced vaccine supply and lack of distribution infrastructure, but there's also the different strains that are circulating, some of which seem to be more infectious and may make you sicker.” She also explained that while vaccines are tested for preventing disease (ie, their ability to stop a patient from getting sick after being exposed to the virus), we still don't know whether they can prevent infection. That means that even if you get vaccinated, you could potentially get an infection but be asymptomatic, and inadvertently pass it on to other people.
Ill-advised events like the City Girls club may facilitate asymptomatic spread—which can in turn have a ripple effect on wider communities. "Even if going to shows right now doesn't affect young concert-goers, it could affect their parents, their grandparents, friends and siblings who have pre-existing conditions, or their community," Dr. Ompad says. And if these events become super-spreader events, they put not only public health at risk, but further prolong venues staying shuttered and make concerts harder to be financially viable for artists, venues, and insurers.
That said, some types of live events are probably safer than others—especially if they are held outdoors instead of indoors, everyone wears a mask, and capacity limits and social distancing guidelines are strictly observed. But while some U.S. festivals like Riot Fest and Austin City Limits are tentatively scheduled for September and October, Dr. Ompad says she wouldn't personally take that risk, partly because social distancing seems like it would be hard to enforce. "When there's a concert, and they're empty seats, people move forward," she said. “I honestly don't trust my fellow concertgoers to stay in their seats, if they were like, in the nosebleed section. And there are seats all the way up front. How does that get policed?"
Even if vaccine distribution improves, public willingness to be vaccinated is high, and live music does return in some form this year, concerts are not going to look the same as they did pre-pandemic. For one, even if the United States reaches herd immunity against the coronavirus, masks may still be necessary for curbing potential transmission.
“I think you need to eject people from the venue if they refuse to wear masks or refuse to social distance,” said Dr. Ompad. “It's okay to take your mask off to take a sip of your drink, or to have a quick bite, but you can't be chilling maskless with your friends or go into a mosh pit.” She speculates that concertgoers may even have to provide proof of vaccination to attend concerts in the future, a possibility floated by politicians like Andrew Yang, but remains controversial. Ticketmaster has said that it is exploring possibly expanding its digital ticketing offerings to include options for event organizers who wish to require that attendees be vaccinated.
In other words, the future of live music will look different even if every mitigation measure against the virus exceeds expectations. But in the meantime, the best way we can help speed its return is to wear a mask and get vaccinated once we become eligible.
“You either want the music, or you don't want the music,” said Dr. Ompad. “You can't have the music and all the crowdedness. If you want concerts back at all, wait your turn for the vaccine and continue to mask up.”