Back in June, rising country artists Chase Rice and Chris Janson performed controversial outdoor shows to hundreds of fans. Rice played to 954 ticket buyers at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petro, Tennessee, and Janson had 2000 in attendance at a music festival in Filer, Idaho. But photos and cell-phone videos of the concerts showed attendees unmasked and packed together, paying no mind to social distancing guidelines. As COVID-19 cases rise dramatically nationwide, these shows have outraged artists like Kelsea Ballerini, who called the decision to play "selfish" and Maren Morris, who wrote that it was "a poor decision that will keep us all out of work even longer." They have a point.
As both Rice and Janson face criticism, other acts are still choosing to play shows. While a planned Vanilla Ice show at an indoor venue in Austin, Texas was canceled after considerable backlash, star rapper DaBaby performed Friday to 1,600 people at an indoor nightclub in Decatur, Georgia. Despite assurances from the venue that attendees would have to be masked and distanced, cell phone footage showed crowds of maskless fans bunched together. So far, the spread of the virus has been traced back to nightclubs, crowded bars, places where people are singing together, and other public gatherings where superspreader events can occur.
"When I saw that there were concerts, I thought, 'God, I hope people were masked and maintaining distance.' But that is not what happened. It was really not a good idea or a smart thing to do," said Dr. Danielle Ompad, an associate professor of epidemiology specializing in infectious diseases at NYU's School of Global Public Health. Ompad explained that just because certain policies allow some live music to happen, doesn't mean that it's safe to be hosting packed concerts right now. "There's a difference between what the policy is and what the public health intervention should be. In some of those states where we're seeing increases in cases, they are prioritizing the economy over public health interventions," she said.
While indoor events are riskier than outdoor activities, social distancing and masks are still necessary to mitigate risk. "Looking at the stills and videos from these country concerts, they're on top of each other and there's no social distancing. A lot of the advantage that you have from being outside is lost when you're that close to somebody," said Dr. Ompad. She added, "If artists are not encouraging or enforcing masking and social distancing at their concerts, then their fans are in danger. If people are just not doing what they're supposed to be doing, it's possible you'll see outbreaks related to these events."
Though the venues that hosted Rice's and DaBaby's show implemented safety protocols that included checking temperatures, distributing hand sanitizer, and having employees and staff wear masks, some of these measures are insufficient. "Temperature checks give places a false sense of security because they don't deal with asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic cases," said Dr. Ompad. "All that's going to do is identify people who are symptomatic and even then we don't even know that those displaying symptoms have COVID-19, they might have something else."
States and counties across the country are taking measures to halt reopenings and impose restrictions to try and slow the virus' spread, but each spike in cases delays when live music can fully return. When 90% of independent venues surveyed in a study claim that they'll have to shut down within six months if they can't get government economic relief, the short-term payoff of having some live music endangers the long-term future of the entire industry. The vast majority of artists are staying home, postponing and canceling tours, until it's safe to do otherwise.
In the meantime, Dr. Ompad pointed to Dave Chappelle's recent Netflix special 8:46, which was filmed at a small outdoor venue in Yellow Springs, Ohio with masks and enforced social distancing as a "a reasonable way" to host events going forward. Even so, the risk is still there. "Ideally, we'd need a vaccine that was effective and the epidemic curve to go way down for a while for live music to return to normal," she said. "If I had free tickets to see Wu-Tang Clan right now, I would be hesitant to go because even if I'm wearing a mask, that doesn't reduce the risk of me getting it enough."