Musicians Are Begging You to Keep Wearing Masks at Shows

Cassandra Jenkins, Ivy Sole, and other artists told VICE that COVID-19 risks are threatening their livelihood, safety, and mental health.
Musician performing for audience with mask on, reaching out to crowd

Cassandra Jenkins, an experimental songwriter from New York, estimates that she’s about 90 percent recovered from her case of COVID-19. The illness felt like the worst flu of her life, but she’s steadily worked her way back to feeling close to normal. Her goal now, she said on a phone call, is to recover financially. Jenkins tested positive for the virus while touring her latest kaleidoscopic, poetic record, 2021’s An Overview on Phenomenal Nature. Now she’s in debt because of the costs of healing and hiding: the hotel room she bunkered in, the flights she canceled, and the money she didn’t earn because she couldn’t perform. Her first thought when she got the test result in March was that she needed to take care of herself as much as possible — to shorten the amount of time she would spend laid up with the virus so that she could get back to performing. 

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Now it’s possible, as Jenkins mused on Twitter, that she will get COVID again on her next round of shows. Infection seems inevitable. “It’s that joke about how so much of touring is for the exposure,” she said. “That sadly works both ways: The amount of exposure I get from playing a show is much less than the COVID exposure.” 

As COVID restrictions loosen across the country even while cases continue to tick up, driven by the contagious Omicron BA.2 variant, musicians are torn between protecting their lives and their livelihoods. They volley between thrill and terror, delighted to be back on stage but scared for their health. Five acts spoke to VICE about how they’re navigating this phase of the pandemic and the toll of constantly calculating COVID risks. 


CASSANDRA JENKINS

Before she contracted the virus, Jenkins had not been cavalier about the dangers of performing. When Delta cases surged last summer, she said that she “painfully opted to pull out shows.” The cancellations weighed on her. “I missed it so much,” she said. “I’ve felt spiritually bankrupt by the inability to do the thing I’ve spent most of my life doing.” 

This spring, though, Jenkins was boosted. She wanted to play. During her tour, she was sleeping on a cramped tour bus with around 10 other people, which she called “the most hazardous conditions you could be in with an active case of COVID.” She woke up in a daze at 2:00pm one day, weary and fatigued, her voice starting to fade. Jenkins immediately put on a mask and headed to a hotel to quarantine. She ended up stranded by herself in a hotel room for five days in Aurora, Illinois, shivering and mired in brain fog as she tried to coordinate canceling her band members’ flights and cover expenses. 

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“It’s an extreme struggle just to break even on tour,” Jenkins said. “At this point, a goal of mine is just to work myself back from putting myself into a lot of debt.” She lost nearly $1,000 to the hotel costs, and thousands more on canceling flights for her bandmates.

Jenkins considers her COVID experience to be a best-case scenario for a touring musician. She is immunocompromised, but her doctor was able to help her navigate finding the anti-viral Paxlovid at a nearby pharmacy. Friends ordered takeout to her hotel. She’s grateful she didn’t test positive in the fall, when she played a slate of shows across Europe in a five-week tour alongside six other people. She literally begged her audience to put on masks as they swayed and swarmed in small venues; she tried to translate her pleas to promoters in spite of the language barrier. “There were days when I was getting off of stages and feeling pure panic because I was certain we were all going to get sick,” she said.

There’s a fundamental tension in making these kinds of demands, Jenkins said, even when she feels they’re necessary to protect her. “I want to cultivate an atmosphere of freedom at my shows,” she said. “And I’m there scared for my survival every day.” 

IVY SOLE

Ivy Sole, a rapper and R&B singer from Charlotte who makes lush, sparse songs about romance and redemption, was originally slated to open for Cautious Clay in February. But after a string of cities she was supposed to play in dropped their mask mandates, she pulled out of the shows. Sole is immunocompromised, with moderate asthma, and she’s worried about the long-term health consequences of contracting the virus. Particularly as a Black woman, she said on a phone call, she wasn’t sure she would be able to receive adequate treatment for the virus. 

“It’s really difficult when the decision is whether or not you’re going to be paid or whether you’re going to risk your life,” she said. The standard rate for an opening act is $250 a show, she said. She didn’t think the amount of money she’d make on tour was substantial enough to cancel out the fear of getting sick.

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That doesn’t mean Sole has stayed off the stage entirely. She’s played a few shows at college campuses that require their students to be vaccinated and tend to have a more compliant culture of mask-wearing. “It’s a very specific subset of the population that I’m performing for,” she said. She hopes that, by the fall, she’ll be able to expand her tour, but she’s waiting to see how cases ebb and flow and if any new variants circulate. “It’s just shitty to have to choose between possibly contracting the virus and what I feel like is the best way to connect with the audience through live performance,” she said. 

Sole feels the strain of those choices in her day-to-day life, too. “I think a lot of people have moved past the pandemic in their personal lives and started to engage with the world as if the pandemic were not a present thing, but I have not been able to do that,” she said. “It just sucks because everybody wants to be outside, everybody wants a sense of normalcy. But that’s not an accessible thing.”

MATTIEL

When Mattiel, an Atlanta-based duo who make gentle, crooning rock, took the stage for their set at South by Southwest this March, they were thrilled to see fewer people in the audience than they expected. The band was playing at around 30 percent capacity, due to COVID restrictions. “It was less people, less bullshit,” said Atina Mattiel Brown, the group’s lead singer. “It was how South By used to be.”

Brown and her producer and bandmate, Jonah Swilley, played their first shows since the pandemic in November. They knew there were inherent risks in performing for a crowd, but they had missed live shows so much that the tradeoff seemed worth it. Besides, they said, the venues they played largely had vaccination requirements and mask mandates. Still, they weren’t prepared for just how jarring it would be to play a pandemic-era show. The masks were a comfort, but the group felt disoriented as they peered at the crowd, unable to tell who was singing along or gauge whether the audience was actually enjoying the show. “You just feel really disconnected from people that way,” Swilley said on a call. The symbiotic relationship between artists and fans seems murkier now, the band added.

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As venues have eased up on pandemic precautions, Mattiel is forging ahead. They just played a sold-out show in New York. “A year ago, we would have been like, ‘Oh my god, what are we doing,’” Swilley said. “But it’s a calculated risk for everyone there.” Their excitement overshadows most of their fear, but sometimes they feel disappointed that performing isn’t like it was back in, say, 2019. The band is trickling back to cities they used to tour at before the pandemic, with mixed reactions from the audiences. Some venues are packed, and others have a pared-down crowd.

“You try not to think of it as: You’re not selling tickets,” Swilley said. “You think of it as: The city isn’t ready to go to shows.”

RAFAELLA

For the indie pop singer Rafaella, who contracted COVID in November and now feels less scared about the potential of reinfection, the most nerve-wracking part of a show comes after she steps off stage. She likes to stay by the merchandise booth to be able to intimately interact with her fans. Rafaella blew up when one of her early songs, “Sorocide,” landed on Spotify’s Viral Top 50 playlist in 2017, and she feels indebted to her listeners for growing her career. That guilt can take a toll, though. Sometimes fans will ask her to yank down her mask for photos. “Sometimes I am like, fuck it. These people are so nice, they deserve a smile,” she said on a call. “And then two minutes later, I’m like, ‘Why did I just do that?’”

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It’s not just musicians who might feel rusty about playing shows again, she said. Audiences are out of practice. Rafaella has noticed more people passing out at her concerts, fainting from dehydration, not used to jostling against each other. “We’re just not well-versed in this group dynamic anymore,” she said. But there are different, diverging levels of risk for concertgoers and musicians themselves, she added. “There’s this cognitive dissonance where it’s like, everyone’s acting totally normal,” she said. “As an artist, you can’t fall into that trap. The people who go to a concert, if they get sick, they can just go home and get better, whereas we have to keep going.”

ALTOPALO

The risk calculus that comes with touring also seeps into some artists’ everyday lives. Mike Haldeman, a member of the New York-based rock band altopalo, has to weigh the risk of attending shows as a spectator before he heads out to Australia to tour in June. “Any exposure is a professional risk,” he said. “You can potentially lose thousands of dollars of income by exposing yourself at a casual hangout.” 

There’s an element of fear baked into the shows he does perform now, Haldeman said. “I’m looking out at a crowd of unmasked people and thinking, like, they’re all having a great time,” he said. “But if I get one shred of this virus in me and I get sick, that’s a week of touring and thousands of dollars out the window. It’s really scary, honestly.” 

His level of concern varies depending on where he plays shows. “Doing a show in Florida is totally different from doing a show in New York,” he said. The band played a show recently in Brooklyn, and he felt relieved seeing the amount of masks across the crowd. “That’s the stuff I’m really grateful for as a performer: to look out at an audience, and know all our heads are in the same place.”