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Concerts and COVID-19: Will Live Events Return in 2021?

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By Doug Bruce
Alumnus, Emergency & Disaster Management

Editor’s note: This article was inspired by graduate thesis work. For his master’s thesis, Bruce conducted a thought experiment applying new COVID-19 event safety guidance to the framework of a previously produced 10,000-person festival in the midwestern United States. The study endeavored to determine if emerging guidance could be used to return to producing a specific event, with implications that may enable the live event industry to return to holding concerts. Disclaimer: This writing is Bruce’s own and does not necessarily reflect the views of employers or other affiliated organizations.

As they say in the entertainment industry, “The show must go on.” In March 2020, the live entertainment industry came to a grinding halt nearly overnight as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset.

Mass gatherings have always had the potential to turn into disaster. But in 2020, the absence of live events had a crippling impact on the entertainment industry, causing the loss of many billions of dollars and countless jobs. It certainly feels COVID-19 “stole the show.”

A burning question for all of us is whether we will return to mass gatherings in 2021. The answer likely depends on where you live and how well the vaccine rollout goes.

Why Do Public Safety Professionals Care When Live Events Return?

From a public safety perspective, why do we care when live events return? Live events are an incredibly important part of our cultural expression as a society and as humans.

Perhaps it’s not the overpriced beer at the stadium or the lights and loud music at a concert we desire as much as the ability to convene with others, experience cultural expression, and feel a part of something to which we relate. In other words, compared to the confines of a pandemic, it’s just plain fun that we miss. Exciting mass gatherings might be just the antidote we need after a year or more of limited interaction and quarantining.

Live events are also economically important. Business experts estimate that the live event sector is worth over a trillion dollars and represents millions of jobs.

In addition, the live event industry overlaps with the vast tourism, hotel, convention and hospitality industries. After all, these are massively important revenue generators for many local economies that rely on tourism, seasonal events, transportation or hospitality.

The risk of not allowing live events to be held legally is that they may just go “underground.” As we’ve seen with raves in the UK and the U.S., unsanctioned events can lead to other greater public health and safety challenges. Unfortunately, there have been numerous cases of COVID-19 spread linked to over-crowded faith-based gatherings, weddings and other unsanctioned events.

Some Live Events Have Taken Place, But with Health Precautions

While coronavirus infections and deaths surge across the United States, some gatherings have been allowed to return. Some NFL games have allowed a limited audience; there have also been numerous drive-in concerts, comedy shows and other outdoor gatherings.

It’s worthy of note that live events have also returned to places that have dealt with the pandemic through travel restrictions, isolation and other public health orders. Some event organizers have allowed a limited and spread-out outdoor audience, but these shows are not like traditional concerts as we knew them.

For instance, venues in places like Wuhan, China, have been notoriously packed with thrill-seeking crowds following harsh restrictions imposed from the early months to the middle of 2020. New Zealand’s isolation allowed them to declare a defeat against the coronavirus and reopen concerts and festivals up to 20,000 people.

Different Entertainment Organizations Have Provided Live Event Safety Guidance

There are numerous organizations that have come forward to provide the best expertise they can on allowing live events to reopen safely. Most notably, the Event Safety Alliance (ESA) released their Reopening Guide free to the public. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Directors Guild of America, Screen Actors Guild (SAG), Teamsters, and other entertainment labor organizations have released collective guides as well.

In addition, The National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security released their COVID-19 considerations for sporting venues, teams, competitions and entertainment. Other organizations from wedding associations to hotel and conference industries around the world released similar planning guides. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) remain authoritative sources of widely-applicable guidance as well.

Any live-event producer looking for guidance can easily come across myriad resources with a few clicks on a search engine results page. But how do we get guidance off websites and into the streets?

Putting COVID-19 Guidance into Practice

Perhaps one of the biggest innovations that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic is that most of the guidance recommends a compliance-related position, such as a “COVID-19 Compliance Officer” or “Infection Mitigation Officer.” These hires would not only be available to offer planning guidance to productions, but they would also have an essential role as part of the crew on site.

This new role would be highly important to the need for health and safety compliance for live events and other productions. Health and safety regulations are notoriously present as a part of normal legislation in the United Kingdom, but they had yet to make their way on to every live event site as a defined position prior to COVID-19. True safety and risk mitigation is more than OSHA regulations.

Other innovations have included the use of COVID-19-sniffing dogs to screen stadium patrons, like those used for explosive ordinance detection. Additionally, drones have been proposed to offer electrostatic spraying sanitation in some venues as well.

But while these innovations are awesome, they don’t solve the problem of mass infection. Temperature screening equipment, pre-arrival vaccinations or symptom questionnaires will likely remain a part of health surveillance strategy, although they may not be 100% reliable in preventing further infections.

The Economic Challenges of Holding Live Events in 2021

The return of live events in 2021 also poses numerous economic challenges. Mitigating the risk of COVID-19 requires significant financial expenditures on testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), staggered crews and even crew quarantining ahead of their time working together.

As a result, live event productions will take more time, more money and more care. Efforts like the “NBA Bubble” in Florida, for instance, were notoriously successful to some extent, but they came at a $150 million cost.

Similarly, the e-gaming League of Legends World Finals in Shanghai, China, were held in a stadium that utilized a live crew and performers, accompanied by state-of-the-art technology and surrounding video screens. Most of the audience was not in the stadium, but the event was live-streamed.

Such a production, using a mix of live performance and technology, is a formula for events of the future. However, quarantining all of the competitors, performers and crew for two weeks ahead of an on-site production or a sports league series is certainly not something available to an up-and-coming band that would typically play a club or 500-person room. It certainly is not feasible for a traditional music festival.

A Challenged Entertainment Industry

One of the reasons the live event industry has suffered so greatly amid the pandemic is that the industry is largely decentralized. Leading industry promoters like Live Nation, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and others make up some of the largest organizations in the industry and serve as a barometer for the nation’s entertainment outlook.

However, the live event industry largely relies on independent contractors and smaller vendors to help produce shows. This strategy is very unlike major airlines, for instance, that employ a lot of their own people and own most of their own assets. It’s easy for the big airlines to go to Congress and lobby for what they need.

But for bands and crew that live out of buses, 12-passenger vans or trailers 11 months of the year, independent contractors who tour internationally, or the companies that supply staging, lighting, audio, catering, security, marketing, labor staffing, and other services for live events, lobbying Congress is out of the question. After all, the arts and live event industry is the world’s original “gig economy.”

Entertainment Industry Production Pivots

Some companies have pivoted or adapted their business strategy in response to the pandemic. Upstaging, a major supplier of transportation, lighting and other production equipment, pivoted to make face shields and other necessary products. Aardvark, a leading experiential and guerrilla marketing vehicle manufacturer, produced mobile health and testing vehicles.

Other promoters have run testing sites, like those in Southern California, or opened venues as polling locations for the 2020 election. Some companies have even helped to open field hospitals. It is likely that such companies connected with the entertainment industry will continue to contribute to the pandemic response.

[Related: The Live Event Industry Can Aid in the Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout]

Furthermore, much of the production model that we’ve come to know and expect for live shows is contingent upon full arenas, tightly packed audiences, and patrons in all the seats. Some companies have called for using COVID-19 testing to return event venues to a full capacity, because they’re basically not economically viable until we can return to pre-pandemic capacities.

Will Live Events Happen in 2021?

Overall, will live events be happening in 2021? It is likely that live concerts will return in some form but with an emphasis on social distancing and pandemic risk mitigation.

Some major events like Coachella, Glastonbury, and others that attract 100,000-plus people have already been cancelled for 2020 and also 2021. These cancellations also serve as some form of an early warning indicator for mega-festivals.

However, other events, especially smaller ones, may be better positioned to move forward. We might be able to have weddings, theater shows or parties in the fall. At least, leading health expert Dr. Anthony Fauci says maybe we can hold these events.

But it’s going to be important to take risk mitigation into account for every aspect of planning and surely not before the majority of our most vulnerable citizens have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. Once the vaccine rollout is successful and widely available, so that we are on our way to herd immunity, then we can return to stadiums, arenas, theaters, and clubs. It is imperative that the reopening of live events happens safely, so that they will not further hinder recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Business Continuity of the Live Event Industry

Hopefully, the live event industry can take lessons from this pandemic and make business continuity innovations that will become critical to the future success of the live event industry, especially if a pandemic reoccurs. It seems inappropriate to call a pandemic such as COVID-19 unforeseeable (or what is often called a “black swan event”). However, some of the effects and consequences of the pandemic on the industry are indeed unforeseen.

To maintain financial resilience and fulfill its ethical obligations, the live event industry should adapt its business practices ahead of the next lockdown. Venues will need to focus on air filtration and air exchange, their ability to feasibly hold events with reduced capacity, and how to run live events at least partly remotely.

While these changes might sound counterintuitive, the rise of virtual and hybrid events points to a shift in the way some live events are conducted. During this pandemic, some productions have even been run remotely. In some cases, producers who would normally be stationed in a packed production control semi-trailer outside a stadium are now working remotely via an internet connection and a bunch of monitors set up in their living rooms.

There Is Still Hope for the Live Event Industry

There is a lot of hope for the live event industry, though. Early indications show that there is a huge built-up demand for live shows and other mass gatherings, whether for entertainment, religion or sports.

The live entertainment industry is notoriously resilient and adaptable. Perhaps the live event industry will be utilized in the vaccine rollout. It definitely has the infrastructure skills and bandwidth to assist public health officials and emergency managers and cope with the massive undertaking of creating testing sites, infrastructure communication, and vaccine distribution.

If a mass vaccination site is produced as effectively as a music festival, it’s an opportunity for public health officials to build our trust and engage with the public. In addition, vendors in the live event industry can show their organization’s strengths to emergency management professionals. Maybe we can “mask off” and “music up” in the not-too-distant future.

About the Author

Doug Bruce is a freelance event producer, safety advisor and a consultant for entertainment organizations on safety and security considerations. Bruce earned a M.A. in emergency and disaster management from American Military University and a bachelor’s in electronic media from Spring Hill College. Bruce has worked on high-profile brand activations, tours, music festivals, film/TV productions, and more across the United States, U.K, Asia, and the Middle East. When not on the road, Bruce is an outreach preparedness trainer and is on an incident management team in his community. Find Doug Bruce on LinkedIn.

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