With New York becoming the latest place to ban large gatherings (of more than 500, in the state’s case) and Live Nation and AEG — the two biggest live entertainment companies — pausing its international and domestic arena tours through at least March, concerts are looking to become significantly rarer in the coming days due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In markets without hard-and-fast gathering caps, bookers and bands are faced with a tough decision: Cancel or play on? (“So many bands rely on these gigs — and festivals are the biggest paydays,” promoter Patrick Garcia noted to Stereogum.)
So if you have a ticket to an upcoming concert (or any other performance) in a city without a gathering ban, the choice of whether to still go could fall on you. Vulture reached out to Dr. Robert Murphy, an infectious diseases researcher and the executive director of Northwestern University’s Institute for Global Health, for some advice and best practices on making that call.
What does “social distancing” mean for concerts?
If you’ve read anything about preventing the spread of coronavirus, you’ve likely come across the vague term “social distancing.” In short, Murphy says, social distancing is “Spending more time alone [and] not going to social events where there’s a lot of people, particularly the more crowded events.” However, he notes that there’s no hard-and-fast rule on what that looks like, citing that gathering bans range from over 1,000 people (like in Paris) to over 100 (like what Ohio just announced).
On a more practical level, social distancing is about spatial awareness. “You don’t have to be isolated in a glass bubble or anything, but staying away from crowds, staying a couple feet from other people, not shaking hands,” Murphy says. “And certainly, if anybody is coughing, stay way the hell away from them.”
What if it’s a small show?
First, define “small.” In the education world (which has widely canceled classes and conferences), Murphy said he’s seen attempts to cap classroom gatherings of 25 people. But, in the end, he says, experts “don’t really know” what a safe number of people for a gathering would be. Although, Murphy himself enjoys seeing small theater at 50-seat venues in Chicago, which he thinks “would actually be pretty safe” compared to a concert.
Can I go to the balcony or the back of the venue? What if it’s seated?
Avoiding the crowd at a show is better (current recommendations say to keep a 6-foot distance), Murphy says — with a caveat. “We use a term in infectious diseases called ‘risk reduction.’ You can never get down to zero,” he explains. “It’s impossible to avoid this completely.”
Similarly, you could be better off at a seated show; it’s the crowded shows in closer quarters that are likely the worst. “If it’s really crowded and everyone’s jumping around dancing and sweating and everything, it’s probably risky,” Murphy says. “If you’re sitting in a theater, and people aren’t on top of you and there’s nobody coughing, and you just kind of keep to yourself and your friends, I think that’s probably a very low risk.”
What else can I do to reduce my risk at a show?
If you haven’t heard it enough by now: Wash. Your. Hands. Coronavirus spreads from “viral droplets” transferred through something like a cough, which can then travel from an infected person’s hands to another surface — and the best way to stop that path is washing your hands. Murphy (who remembers washing his hands “20 times a day with bleach” while researching Ebola in Mali and will take none of your dry-hand complaints) says “the first thing you should do is wash your hands” when you leave a crowd. Consider this especially upon getting to the venue if you took public transit. “You don’t get infected from this thing by inhaling air in a room that somebody with the disease had just been in,” he notes. “It’s really spread by infected droplets from coughing. That’s very different and it’s an important distinction to make.”
Murphy also admits it’s “extremely difficult” not to touch your face, but says “try really hard not to” until you can wash your hands.
But venue bathrooms suck!
Hand sanitizer can work too, Murphy says, so long as it’s at least 60 percent alcohol — and you can get some. “Just use the hand sanitizer frequently,” he advises.
Should I be worried about physical tickets and programs?
In light of a recent case of a Broadway usher testing positive for coronavirus, Murphy says venues should also try to minimize contact between staff and attendees. “Why don’t they just put all the Playbills on a table and say ‘take it’? People have to start being a little smart about this,” he recommends. “Don’t hand me your ticket, just tell me your seat, I’ll tell you where to go.”
Can I buy a drink? What about merch?
Murphy says he’d be worried about getting a drink at a venue bar right now. Imagine a friend leaves in the middle of the set and offers to get you a drink. “The bartender’s touched the drink, your friend touched the drink, then you’ve touched the drink,” he explains. “This is how it spreads around.”
Merch, meanwhile, should be better off, “as long as the seller is not slobbering all over it.”
What if I’m in a city with few to no confirmed cases?
Murphy says “the chances are so low” of contracting coronavirus at a concert if you’re in a city with no confirmed cases. That said, he did stress that the disease has been able to spread, citing new cases two counties away from Chicago and Cook County. “I mean, it’s just incredible where it’s popping up,” Murphy says. “It’s a funny disease that doesn’t know any borders.
I want to buy a ticket for a show in the summer. When will this go away?
As you can likely guess by now, there’s no easy answer to that. “All I can say is that this is going to pass. All these epidemics go away,” Murphy says. “As the population gets immunity, they tend to burn out. So, that will happen — the question is when, and is it going to go away in the summer?”
How coronavirus will fare during the warmer months is a guessing game right now. “We don’t know about this one,” Murphy admits. “It doesn’t like the heat so much, there seems to be a lot more infections in temperate climates. Maybe it’ll go away in the summer, maybe not.”
Many current gathering bans and cancellations only look toward the next 30 days, which means summer shows, including festivals like Bonnaroo and Governors Ball, are still on as of press time. Coachella may have been postponed till November, but artists are still announcing major tours, most recently Wilco and Sleater-Kinney on Tuesday. Buy at your own risk.
So, should I go?
The day I talked to Murphy, I had a ticket to see a sold-out Best Coast show at a 1,300-capacity venue in Chicago. I ask point-blank: If he were in my place, would he go?
“I wouldn’t. Too many people too close together,” he tells me. Part of it for him, he adds, would be his age. “You have to put the formula together and how much it really means to you. Can you live without going to this concert?” I tell him I think so. “Yeah, you can,” he adds. “Unless it’s Patti Smith or something. But you have to make your own decision.”