COV-AID: Well Before The Industry Wrote To Biden, Groundwork Was Laid For Vaccine Efforts
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Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., opens its gates for the first time as a COVID-19 vaccination “super site” Feb. 2 as the events industry works out logistics to back up its offer to President Joe Biden to provide sites and workers to staff them.
As the battered and bruised live events industry approaches the anniversary of the near-complete shutdown of business thanks to COVID-19, it’s doubling down on efforts to not only save its stages but making a commitment to the communities on which they depend.
When the live industry spoke in one voice in a Jan. 26 letter to President Joe Biden offering assistance in setting up mass vaccination centers to combat COVID-19, it marked the culmination of multiple efforts and conversations happening separately but simultaneously.
We Make Events, a group comprising nearly 2,000 industry stakeholders from International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees locals to nightclubs to football stadiums, published a letter Jan. 23 outlining COV-AID, a detailed program with the goal of offering “a well-organized, rapid system of vaccine delivery in every market” and a blueprint of how that can be achieved.
The Save Live Events Now coalition – which represents Live Nation, AEG Presents, WME, CAA, UTA, Paradigm and Feld Entertainment as well as SAG-AFTRA, Universal Music Group, The Recording Academy and Pollstar parent company Oak View Group – sent a letter Jan. 27 to congressional leaders detailing the struggles of the live entertainment industry and asking the officials to prioritize aid for live events and workers in the coming year.
These two announcements, within days of each other, show the conundrum our industry faces in this pandemic: On one hand, we are a vital civil resource that helps our communities and society as a whole to recover. On the other, to be able to do this, many are going to need public assistance.
The only way to truly survive the shutdown is to kill the pandemic, and that means getting people vaccinated. Bandit Lites CEO Michael Strickland recognizes this and saw the events industry was perfectly capable in all aspects of delivery, save for actually putting shots in arms. And he wasn’t the only one.
He realized that the production side of the industry could provide many of the services needed to run mass vaccination clinics and staff experienced with crowd management, ID checks and getting large numbers of people in and out of venues, but felt what was needed was buy-in from the top industry leaders in addition to production-side people champing at the bit to pitch in.
In discussing nationwide cooperation in vaccine clinics, “This is coming from the production community up, but it would require top-down cooperation. There’s no other way to make it work,” Strickland tells Pollstar. “And then Wayne [Forte, president of Entourage Talent] called me on the way home one night and said, ‘Let’s do this.’ And I told Wayne, ‘We need the top-down piece and we don’t have it.’ And he says, ‘Well, I think we do. Coran’s already doing this.’”
Coran, of course, is Red Light Management owner Coran Capshaw. He, along with Red Light’s Ann Kingston, worked with Charlottesville, Va., health department officials to use one of his commercial properties in the city as a vaccination clinic. Now there are two.
“We saw a need in our community,” Kingston says. “And with our logistics know-how, long history with event management and the fact we don’t have bureaucratic red tape because we’re not a state agency, we were able to quickly build the infrastructure that they needed to be able to mass vaccinate.”
Kingston says Red Light initially set up a modular tent that was fully heated, had glass doors and functioned very much like a regular building.
“So now we actually have two big places where, once the vaccine is hopefully falling from the sky, we’ll really be able to scale and do thousands of people a day in a very efficient manner,” Kingston says. “But I think what we brought was our history in event management and the ability to know how to move people quickly through a facility.”
She also credits financial support from Capshaw client Dave Matthews and his Bama Works foundation, as well as funding from other local donors.
“We pulled enough money together to get the second vaccination center going,” Kingston says. “And we’re even doing things like providing meals for all of the vaccinator staff so that they don’t have to leave the site and they have a nice meal provided for them each day.”
Capshaw and Red Light Management were proving early on that the model would work. The trick is to roll it out on a global scale.
Strickland called Capshaw on a weekly basis. He also called Charlie Walker at C3 Presents, who was immediately on board. Live Nation President/CEO Michael Rapino and AEG Presents Chairman Jay Marciano threw their support behind the fledgling effort. Dayna Frank, president of National Independent Venue Association, joined the team. The word went out on Strickland’s email network of about 1,200 industry professionals and beyond.
“Michael [Rapino] said, ‘What is it you want from me?’ And I said, well, for AEG and Live Nation to make any and all venues available and the ability to use your name,” Strickland says. “And he said, ‘Absolutely.’”
”Live Nation has over 250 venues, many sites across our 100-plus festivals and thousands of employees to help support the vaccination rollout around the world. The faster and more effective distribution can be, the sooner we can reopen all aspects of society including live events, and we’re fully dedicated to aiding that mission,” Rapino told Pollstar.
Strickland’s efforts went beyond the insular concert industry. Tyson Foods CEO Richard Tyson offered the use of the company’s refrigerated trucks to move the vaccine. Tyson Foods, he says, is the biggest owner of refrigerated trucks in the country.
The letter to Biden got much-needed attention.
“When that went out, it immediately got global. It was outside of our echo chamber. A lot of my talking is inside of our echo chamber, but we got outside of that with that press release.” Strickland says.
Getting outside of the echo chamber is one thing, but making mass clinics happen is quite another. For one, there needs to be vaccine available to provide. And to date, the distribution of the vaccine has been at best erratic. Federal stockpiles turned out to be non-existent and a grand game of kick-the-can, from the federal level to states to counties to final distributors has made the distribution a nightmare.
“The first thing you’re going to hear from a lot of people is that right now there’s not enough vaccine to worry about it,” Strickland says. “Well, you plan an invasion. You put out information ahead of time, before you hit the beach.”
Strickland and others in the industry have been in discussion with newly minted COVID czar Jeffrey Zients and share the hopefully good news that a large amount of vaccine may become available in the third week of February from Modena and Pfizer. Additionally, Strickland says, a vaccine from Johnson & Johnson may be approved by then. And there’s an outside chance that AstraZeneca’s vaccine may be ready as well.
“So we’re looking at this large amount of vaccine coming our way. It’s better that we get prepared. Now, are we going to win this holistically? Absolutely not,” Strickland says. “But after that letter and press release went out, suddenly you had football stadiums, baseball stadiums and NASCAR tracks, all stepping up. We’re planting the seed in people’s minds. The next step is getting the production people, the production managers and the local folks to realize you’ve got to get on the phone and you’ve got to wear out the health department and the local hospital that’s running the charge. And you’ve got to force your way in because they don’t even know you exist.”
Given the experience with the Charlottesville vaccination centers, Kingston further explains, “The states have tasked the local health departments with administering the vaccines. And the problem is the health departments don’t have any sort of large-scale space. They’re not used to having to do mass vaccination campaigns. So we reached out to the health department as an independent third party. Coran owns some retail space that also happens to have a large parking lot in front. And so we met with the health department and they said, ‘Great, we definitely could use the space.’”
What becomes clear is that communication between those offering space and staffing, and local health departments is paramount in order to deliver on the live industry’s offer. In too many cases, medical staff as well as local law enforcement is being pressed into service in positions with little experience that live event staffs do on a constant basis.
“Our industry not only has the knowledge and the people that can execute, but we have production companies that have big proper tents and we have road cones and we have the metal bicycle stands that keep people going the right way,” Strickland says. “We have all the elements because we do Super Bowls and rock concerts and festivals. And in a moment we can deliver crowd management. And so that is an ongoing conversation.”
As We Make Events says on its website, “There are several thousand live event companies also currently dormant and many of these firms own the equipment and infrastructure required to safely manage, control, and move people in an orderly fashion. This infrastructure already exists in many places, is sitting idle and is paid for. Therefore, there is no logical reason for this equipment to be replicated by an entity (or entities) attempting to assist with vaccine roll out.”
Forte says it a bit more emphatically.
“You have competitors coming together to work in one direction because we want to get our business back together. But at the same time, and I don’t want to be too flowery, we’re going to help save the world. Yeah, well, we’re definitely out there to save the business.”