Organizers of live events around the state are bringing audiences back together – cautiously in some cases
When thousands of concert-goers packed into Chicago’s Grant Park for the Lollapalooza music festival at the end of July, the event drew widespread scorn from public health experts. The nation remains in the throes of a deadly pandemic and lagging vaccination rates have provided an avenue for the highly contagious delta variant to spread among the unvaccinated populace. Even some individuals who have gotten the shot are testing positive with breakthrough infections. So is it safe to join crowds at live shows?
“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that we need to be prepared at any moment for the situation to change, and that includes the feasibility of keeping COVID-19 transmission rates down while holding large scale events,” said Corey Hannah Basch, a professor and chair of the public health department at William Paterson University. New Jerseyans “have to be diligent and proactive to prevent a surge like we experienced in early 2020,” added Lewis Nelson, who chairs emergency medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
“I imagine that many states will go back toward the guidelines we followed last year regarding mass gatherings, including masking and distancing for highly attended outdoor events and all indoor ones,” Nelson continued. “Some may indeed be cancelled.”
When vaccination rates picked up in the spring and early summer, event organizers responded by opening up sports seasons, concerts, plays, fairs and festival line-ups, many of which were cancelled during the worst of the pandemic last year.
Now, amid a resurgent outbreak, those plans are in jeopardy.
“If it continues down this road, it’s really going to get much worse as we continue to the winter,” said Sean Gilday, CEO of the music and entertainment booking agency Blue Raven Entertainment, based in Saddle Brook. “I’m not worried that it will get worse. It will get worse. It’s a virus that thrives in the October weather.”
Even now, some musicians have been warned by venues that the delta variant means they could very well lose out on any money. “They’re willing to book the show, but they’re saying they don’t want to guarantee them the money because of the delta,” Gilday said. “Right now, we’re just doing it.”
And so executives like Gilday and Mike Childs, founder and president of Ledge Entertainment, another entertainment agency, said the only option for now at least is to push ahead. “We’re all reading about how everyone’s anxious … but we’re still selling tickets, people want to get out and go to shows.”
Large indoor and outdoor events were among the last where COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, and Gilday said they could very likely be the first to go if the pandemic once again worsens. Crowds of hundreds or thousands of people make social distancing almost impossible.
Michael Maron, CEO of Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck – widely considered ground zero for New Jersey’s COVID-19 pandemic – said that if the delta variant worsens, live events should be the first to go. “Our concern is … if the delta variant … or some other variant is still very active in the community, those become spreader events,” he said in an interview. “Shutting down those events again would probably be the greater mitigation intervention.”
Some event organizers have indeed taken that sentiment to heart. Michael Arnone’s 31st Annual Crawfish Festival, which was scheduled for later this month in Sussex County, is being pushed to June of next year because of the delta variant spread. “We know people will be exposed at the Crawfish Fest,” reads a July 30 statement. The event brings out thousands of attendees to the Sussex County Fairgrounds in Augusta, and over 100 bands and musical acts.
Existing guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the organizers feared, might simply not be enough to prevent an outbreak. “Our dance hall is indoors and our pavilion stage is covered, semi- indoors with people dancing and touching,” the statement reads. “The CDC stated vaccinated people who are infected by delta may carry a large amount of the virus and transmit it to others. We know there maybe unvaccinated folks there … It will be near impossible to keep people masked and at a safe distance.”
In Asbury Park, the Sea Hear Now festival scheduled for Sept. 18-19 is requiring patrons to get a COVID-19 vaccine or produce a negative test result. The event was cancelled in 2020, and this year it’ll bring out thousands of attendees to view the lineup featuring Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and the Avett Brothers. “The safety of our patrons and our staff is our number one priority,” the festival said in an Aug. 4 Twitter post.
The safety of our patrons and our staff is our number one priority. As such, a full COVID-19 vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results will be required to attend https://t.co/Lyggl5kcIG 2021. pic.twitter.com/7jcglCBE6k
— Sea.Hear.Now Festival (@seahearnow) August 4, 2021
Up north in Bayonne, the Bridge Arts Gallery organizes the city’s annual Bridge Arts Festival, which is sent for Sept. 11 this year, and according to the events manager Cheryl Mack usually brings out upward of 4,500 patrons. This year, attendees are being asked to wear masks and vendors are being physically spaced out, according to Mack. And the hand sanitizing stations common for most of the pandemic will be set up across the fair, she said.
In fact, a majority of organizers say they’re pushing ahead with whatever concert, festival or sporting event is on the calendar, at least until a government mandate forces their hands.
MetLife Stadium hosted its first concert since 2019 on Aug. 5 with a show by Guns N’ Roses. Proof of vaccine was not required, nor was a negative COVID-19 test. “An inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 and its variants exists in any public place where people are present; we cannot guarantee you will not be exposed during your visit,” reads a statement from MetLife Stadium. “COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease that can lead to severe illness and death,” the statement continues. “By visiting MetLife Stadium, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19 and its variants.”
Representatives for the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets, which both play MetLife Stadium, could not be reached for comment.
Many concerts are still on at two of New Jersey’s largest venues: the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel and the BB&T Pavilion in Camden. Lynyrd Skynyrd is playing at PNC Bank on Aug. 27, Maroon 5 on Sept. 10, and the Jonas Brothers on Oct. 5. “We’re working closely with local officials and will continue to enhance safety guidelines,” reads a statement from Live Nation, which operates both venues. “We also encourage everyone who can to get vaccinated as that is the best way for us all to take care of each other and get back to doing what we love.”
Another large concert venue, the Prudential Center in Newark, could not be reached for comment, while the nearby New Jersey Performing Arts Center in the same city declined to comment.
At the Atlantic City Convention Center, executives have yet to see a drop-off in patronage or interest due to the spread of the variant. Clients are “in the process of exploring all options including mask requirements, signage, identifying hand sanitizing stations and other platforms to address attendee and exhibitor concerns,” said officials at Meet AC, which handles marketing for the center and nearby Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall, a concert venue.
Nor have there been any cancellations of upcoming events or potential downtowns in attendance for those events. “In fact, attendance was increased during the last few events.”
The venue’s schedule picks up in the winter months, when the cold weather forces tourists and visitors off of the beach and boardwalk. The first large event this year is Dino-Stroll, which is expected to bring out 12,000 patrons between Oct. 1 and 25.
After that, the New Jersey Education Association’s annual convention will bring out an estimated 15,000 attendees Nov. 4-5, followed by 22,000 patrons at the New Jersey League of Municipalities annual conference Nov. 16-18. Both events were held virtually in 2020.
Nearly an hour south on the Cape May peninsula, event organizers at the Greater Wildwoods Tourism, Improvement and Development Authority, which operates the 7,000-seat, 260,000-square-foot Wildwood Convention Center, said events are moving ahead this summer.
The Barefoot Country Musical Festival on the beach is planned for Aug. 19-22, and tens of thousands of attendees are expected this year. “We are following all CDC and NJ Department of Health recommendations and mandates regarding outdoor events in order to provide the safest experience for our visitors,” said Ben Rose, who handles marketing for the GWTIDA, in an email.
At the New Jersey Convention and Exposition Center in Edison, organizers of the annual New Jersey Mineral, Fossil, Gem and Jewelry Show in mid-August expect the event to continue full speed ahead. Vaccines and masks won’t be required this year, according to the organizers. Upwards of 14,000 attendees are expected, said Lowell Carhart, one of the founders of Eons Expos, which organizes the annual event.
The floor-space set-up is more like a grocery store than a bar, restaurant or concert, said Carhart, who is betting on the high vaccination rates in New Jersey in the hope that most people who show up will have gotten the shot. “The risk is only to those who willingly choose to take the risk by not vaccinating,” Carhart said in an email. “[F]olks who wish to be vaccinated have already done so (as we have) and can attend with minimal risk, while those who have not have vaccinated have made their decision to accept the risk.”
At the Sussex County Fairgrounds, organizers for the New Jersey State Fair are also taking their chances. The fair kicked off on Aug. 7, and runs through Aug. 14. “The Fairgrounds is spread out over more than  acres. The barns, pavilions, and tents are open to the air” while the indoor buildings “have fans circulating air,” a statement reads. “Multiple roads and walkways between tents allow for social distancing.”
Mike Richards, the fairgrounds manager, said in an email that interest from vendors and food concessions was greater than in 2019, while “advance sales online for admission and the demolition derby continue to be strong.”t