Omicron: The Live Industry Strategizes Response To New, Highly Contagious Variant

The Show Goes On
Jason Davis / Getty Images
– The Show Goes On
An estimated 200,000 revelers rang in 2022 at New Year’s Eve Live: Nashville’s Big Bash in the city’s Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, enjoying sets by stars including Dierks Bentley and Lady A despite high COVID-19 case rates across the country.

The calendar read Dec. 23, 2021, but the news felt eerily like March 2020. Coronavirus cases, fueled by the new, highly contagious Omicron variant, were spiking throughout the U.S., causing Americans to re-evaluate plans – and the live industry to consider whether events could move forward.

As it was during COVID’s initial arrival nearly two years ago, New York was among the first places in America to weather an Omicron-related surge, with the state posting a record 21,027 positive cases – one of which was mine – on Dec. 16. The state has shattered its own daily case record nearly every day since, including almost 78,000 new cases on Jan. 4.

So, when Phish announced Dec. 23 that it was postponing its annual four-night New Year’s run at Madison Square Garden to April, it was disheartening, but unsurprising. In a statement regarding the decision, Phish cited Omicron’s “unprecedented” rapid transmissibility.

Omicron Is Coming To Town
Alexi Rosenfeld / Getty Images
– Omicron Is Coming To Town
Driven by the new, more contagious Omicron variant, millions of Americans received COVID tests in late December. Here, a reveler retains some holiday spirit while getting swabbed in New York’s Times Square.

“A significant number of people travel for these shows and then return to their communities, and we want to avoid accelerating transmission of the virus,” the band wrote. “Even with the strictest of tour Covid protocols, the prolonged exposure of a four-night indoor run (plus the days of preparation and travel) to critical crew and staff considerably increases the possibility of having to shut the shows down once they’ve started.”

The next day, New York’s other New Year’s arena concert, The Strokes at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, postponed. New York City, which instituted a vaccination requirement in mid-November for its iconic Times Square ball drop, tightened its capacity from 58,000 to 15,000 on Dec. 23, adding a mask requirement. It was, to put it mildly, a Big Apple New Year’s unlike any other.

But, like much of the country, some live entertainment moved forward in New York City. Knicks basketball games at Madison Square Garden proceeded as scheduled, and Brooklyn mega-club Avant Gardner hosted several thousand for a 27-hour EDM blowout straddling New Year’s and featuring heavy-hitters like Rüfüs Du Sol and Honey Dijon.

Several smaller clubs also remained open. On New Year’s Eve, Market Hotel, a 450-capacity club in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, hosted long-running electronic series The Bunker, but with an innovative twist: On top of its pre-existing vaccination requirement, the venue administered free rapid tests at the door for entry, and also provided free PCR tests to guests who tested positive – a public health perk in a city where tests were tough to come by for much of December. The combination, rather than choice, of proof of vaccination and onsite testing could be a scalable solution for the live industry to keep events safe.

Across the country, similar stories played out, as event organizers assessed risks, evaluated safety protocols and postponed or moved forward. Some artists followed Phish and The Strokes, calling off shows out of precaution; others, from Billy Strings to Barry Manilow, nixed gigs due to positive COVID cases in their camps – an increasingly frequent occurrence as cases, regardless of severity, exponentially grow.

Unusual Times
Yuki Iwamura / AFP / Getty Images
– Unusual Times
New York slashed its iconic Times Square celebration to a capacity of 15,000 – about a quarter of its usual headcount – but moved forward with vaccination and masking protocols.

But others soldiered on, setting the tone for a year where the only given is unpredictability. In Nashville, an estimated 200,000 packed Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park for sets by stars like Dierks Bentley and Lady A. In Las Vegas, Katy Perry debuted her new residency – including a scene with a giant mask – as planned on Dec. 29.

On Dec. 28, David Byrne unveiled “American Utopia: Unchained,” a modified five-day run of his Broadway show, rejiggered with new arrangements and song choices to compensate for COVID cases within the production’s band and crew.

“Rather than canceling our shows, we’re looking at this as an opportunity to, well, honor our commitment to the audiences who are coming, and creating something special,” Byrne announced in a video message. “We’re just gonna come up with a show! This is our opportunity to make lemonade from COVID lemons.”

And, in these tenuous times, there’s reason for hope. Scientists increasingly agree Omicron is less severe than the original coronavirus strain or variants like Delta – and that, despite Omicron’s vaccine resistance, vaccines remain effective against hospitalization and death.

In New York state, for instance, as of Jan. 1, only 4.9% of the fully-vaccinated population had reported breakthrough infections, and a mere 0.15% of that same group had been hospitalized. In the week beginning Dec. 27, the most recent data available at press time, the daily rate of hospitalizations per 100,000 vaccinated New Yorkers was 4.59, a fraction of the corresponding 58.27 figure for the unvaccinated.

Evidence is also mounting that Omicron – which grew from 8.0% of U.S. COVID-19 cases for the week ending Dec. 11 to 95.4% for the week ending Jan. 1 – may run its course quickly. Analyzing South Africa’s Gauteng region, where Omicron first emerged, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb tweeted that “cases continue to fall sharply, hospitalizations [remain] decoupled from prior waves” and the “wave lasted about two months, and took one month to reach its peak.”

What Happens In Vegas
John Shearer / Getty Images / Katy Perry
– What Happens In Vegas
Katy Perry started her residency at Resorts World Las Vegas as planned on Dec. 29 – albeit with a nod to the pandemic.

On Dec. 29, Dr. Bob Wachter, chair of the UCSF Department of Medicine, tweeted extensively about “why we could be in good shape – and maybe even great shape – in 6-8 weeks.” For now, he explained, an Omicron-driven surge in hospitalizations, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated, will strain America’s healthcare system, including for patients with non-COVID-related ailments. But, “by early February, we could be in a place where Covid is, in fact, ‘like the flu’ – with the vast majority of the U.S. protected through vaccines or recent infections,” Wachter concluded, affirming “the case-hospitalization dissociation” and adding that new antiviral treatments like Pfizer’s Paxlovid will help treat those who contract severe COVID-19 cases.

What does it mean for the live industry? For one, encouraging scientific findings have deterred politicians and public health officials from implementing shutdowns, the most obvious obstacle to events taking place.

“If we close down our city, it is as dangerous as COVID,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a Democrat who assumed office Jan. 1. “That proper balance of safety [and] keeping our economy operated is going to allow us to get through.”

Much will fall on artists, venues and promoters. Vaccine protocols, once seen as temporary, will likely become more entrenched, perhaps with new stipulations for boosters. Additional testing for entry, like Market Hotel’s model, may become more common, and mask-wearing – whether requested by artists or chosen by audiences – would seem a given, at least for now.

At press time, many major tours slated for January and February remained on the books, though some January events – like New York’s Winter Jazzfest – had postponed. As this story was going to print, Dead & Company announced “with much sadness and after great consideration of every possible scenario” the cancellation of both weekends of Mexican destination fest Playing In The Sand, which had been scheduled for Jan. 7-10 and 13-16, due to spiking COVID cases. A day earlier, a positive test had sidelined the band’s John Mayer from participating.

Uncertain as the coming weeks may be, count on this industry, known for its resiliency and ingenuity, to roll with the punches and meet 2022’s new, pandemic-related demands.