When Garth Brooks told Billboard he would require his crew to "stay at home" if they did not get vaccinated, he was basically speaking for the entire concert industry. "Of all the bands we deal with, they're all requiring vaccinated crews," says Michael Strickland, owner and founder of Bandit Lites, the Nashville company handling lighting for the Brooks stadium tour beginning July 10. "We're not mandating they be vaccinated, we're telling them: 'If you want to be on a particular tour, you have to be vaccinated.'"
The requirement seems benign -- vaccines have led to dramatic drops in COVID-19 cases and deaths, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director recently said they make "nearly every death... entirely preventable" -- but it has complicated the return of concert tours. Several crew members, from truck drivers to special-effects wizard Pyro Pete Cappadocia, have refused to get their shots, at least for now. So as tours and festivals rush back to full capacity, and Foo Fighters, Green Day, Brooks and others load up buses and trucks for the first time in 16 months, production managers are replacing veteran crew members with new employees.
"We've had some people decide not to go back on the road. There's a lot of hesitancy on whether or not they want to get vaccinated," says Zito, production manager for Green Day, which requires its crew to get shots. "It's made a challenging situation even more challenging."
Milky Chance is one of the acts hitting the road for a fully vaccinated tour this fall. "In the bus, it's basically impossible [without vaccines] -- you know how narrow and tight everything is," says the band's manager Rob Steiger. Adds Robert A. Roth, a veteran rental rep for Christie Lites: "What are you going to do? Have the vaccinated bus? If anybody gets sick, what happens then? How do you separate those people in a load-in environment?"
Legally, the tour vaccine requirement is on more questionable ground. Brooks said, "As an artist, I don't think I can mandate it" and promised to pay unvaccinated crew members to stay at home. "I don't think any of this is black or white, because it is all too new, and whatever rules exist are very new and subject to change," adds Ed McPherson, a music-business attorney.
Strictly speaking, according to Donald Woodard, another music-business attorney, the EEOC allows employers to require workers to get the vaccine, and musicians have the right to require crew vaccinations. Still, he adds, "You cannot force someone to get the shot," so an employee could choose whether or not to work -- like the two truck drivers who told Billboard they chose to leave the concert business and shift to hauling freight, alone in their big rigs.
Gig workers, including many roadies and others on tours, are subject to individual contracts, many of which they signed pre-COVID and do not cover vaccines. "Companies cannot mandate vaccinations as a term of a continuing contractor relationship, unless there is an amendment," says Jacqueline Sabec, a music-business attorney with King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano in L.A. Plus, Arkansas, Montana and other states have banned vaccine requirements as conditions for employment.
But Sabec says artists can work around these individual red-state laws: "If you tour through states that don't make it illegal, you should be able to require vaccinations of your employees." And in the end, McPherson says, vaccine requirements are likely to win out in legal proceedings: "Workers are going to have a hard time challenging rules that are imposed for the public's and other employees' safety following a horrific pandemic."
Why aren't certain crew members willing to get shots? The truckers who left the concert business said they mistrust the government and are suspicious of vaccines being developed so quickly when AIDS treatments, for example, have taken decades. Cappadocia says he's "stalling" until health officials are more reassuring that the vaccines will cover all the new COVID strains and variants. "I'm worried, if I go get my vaccine tomorrow, a month from now I'm going to be told, 'That one's no good, you need this one to tour,'" he says. "And I would do it, so I am vaccinated 30 days before the tour starts."
But many reps for top touring artists don't buy the vaccine hesitancy. Jake Berry, a production manager for U2, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Metallica and others, recalls crews readily agreeing to yellow-fever inoculations when preparing to tour in South America over the years. "The crew used to line up, and this [doctor] would administer his shots. Nobody said no to that vaccination," he says. "I don't think it's a problem in the industry, it's a problem in America. It's going to affect all walks of life -- train drivers and city bus drivers and office staff."
For now, the unvaccinated-crew issue isn't a big logistical problem for tours, since just a few major ones are out and the pool of available workers is still relatively robust. But the fall could be different, as festivals return, venues ramp up to full capacity and bands hit the road like it's 2019. "I know lighting directors for big tours that are not going to be on big tours because they refuse to get vaccinations. And they have been replaced," Bandit Lites' Strickland says. "All the bands we deal with are requiring vaccinated crews. It's not ugly, it's not mean -- it's just business."