Can In My Elements, a Contained Dance Festival, Succeed Amidst COVID-19?

Elements Festival 2019
Alive Coverage

Elements Festival 2019

COVID-19 has dealt catastrophic blows to the live industry, and especially the live electronic events realm, as shows and festivals are primary economic and cultural drivers of the scene. But a group of New York event promoters are going against all odds for an open-air music retreat taking place this weekend.

While major music festivals like Coachella, Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits have cancelled their planned and postponed 2020 events, Brooklyn-based production company BangOn! has maintained two upcoming shows on their events calendar. The first is In My Elements, a three-day open-air retreat taking place at an “undisclosed lakefront summer camp” in Northeastern Pennsylvania starting tomorrow (July 10). Much like their annual Elements Festival, the retreat features music programming with headliners including Maceo Plex and DJ Tennis, along with wellness activities, all wrapped up in a boutique camping experience.

The million-dollar difference for In My Elements is the experimental introduction of two-part COVID-19 testing, a feature the festival prominently proclaims across its announcement flyer and website.

For many, the idea of any large-scale gathering is a question mark at best, and downright unacceptable at worst. With many eager to get back to business and music as usual, headlines and social media have documented the backlash against illegal raves, and against artists across all genres who have ignored health and safety recommendations with non-socially distanced shows.

In My Elements fields the same online criticism, with comments questioning and condemning the event spread across social posts promoting the retreat. “Very concerning,” one comment reads. “Why are you putting people at risk?” asks another.

Though regulations vary from state to state, as of late June, Pennsylvania is in its “green phase” of reopening, which legally allows a maximum of 250 individuals to gather, despite the state reaching over 90,000 coronavirus cases over the July 4th weekend.

BangOn!, a New York-based event production company that's operated since 2007, specializes in electronic music events and have built up a reputation across the northeast. (The company now officially operates as Elements but has kept the BangOn name in play due to longevity/brand recognition.) In Brooklyn, they create go-to destinations for Halloween and New Year's events, warehouse shows and pop-up parties; in Pennsylvania and the surrounding area, they are known for their outdoor, immersive camping and music festival retreats.

“We want to do more than the government is doing,” co-founder of BangOn! Tim Monkiewicz says of the testing component of this weekend's event. “We think it’s too soon to [gather 250 people] with no masks and no distancing. That’s why we’re going one step further with testing and still requiring social distancing as well. We want to be leaders.”

Unlike shows that have been chastised for their overall disregard of health and safety regulations, In My Elements is approaching the idea of reviving live events with a far more cautious method. The upcoming retreat will allow only 250 people on-site at its undisclosed event location: 225 ticket buyers and an additional 25 attendees, staff, artists and volunteers.

All persons will be required to adhere to the two-part testing mandate; this is made possible thanks to a high-ticket price tag for attendees, which includes the cost of the two tests. The base cost for a weekend ticket to In My Elements is $596, which doesn’t include the cost of food, drinks, parking or the option to upgrade to a private cabin.

On the ticketing site, the ticket price is broken down as $249 for the retreat pass, $199 for the cabin bed and $147 for the two tests, which for some can be discounted by $100 with eligible insurance. Monkiewicz and fellow company co-founder Brett Herman recognize that the price for In My Elements is prohibitively expensive for most, and hope that a successful pilot will help encourage making tests more widely available, or insurances opting to cover more testing costs.

“This is not a money-making endeavor,” Herman says. “We’re able to manage the risk, understanding that things could change 180 degrees at any time. Our goal with trying to do this now is to find a path and understand under what conditions could this work.”

The first tests were conducted at mobile, outdoor locations in New York City, Philadelphia and Boston three days before the first day of In My Elements, with results issued within 24 to 48 hours. Given a negative diagnosis, guests were then sent the event address. Upon arrival, they will be guided into a parking lot and remain in their cars, spaced 20 feet apart, to receive a temperature test and final active COVID-19 test.

Results from this second test will be available within 15 minutes. Only upon the second negative diagnosis will guests be directed to their cabin -- housed at 50% capacity, with a maximum of six people -- and required to attend a group orientation. For any positive tests, the individual and any other persons in their vehicle will not be allowed to enter and directed to return home and quarantine. They’ll be issued a refund of their ticket and given a $150 travel voucher and a 50% code for the next event, though details on what the travel voucher entails were not clear.

In regards to concern about testing accuracy and the possibility of a negative result at an early stage of infection, Herman explains, “There have been studies that show that even a very accurate test can miss a COVID-19 diagnosis if there’s not enough virus currently in the system to test, potentially at the very beginning of exposure. This is why we’re performing two tests, three days apart. Both of the tests we’re using have clinical studies provided by the labs that manufacture the tests that show no false negatives in their sample sizes.”

Organizers plan to enforce social distancing throughout the weekend, starting with the general orientation, which will aim to establish social etiquette -- including tackling novel topics like the idea of “consent” to come within six feet of a person -- while also including activities like mask-making. Cabin groups will be kept together during activity times, though there will also be downtime during which attendees are allowed to freely wander the site.

In stage areas, social distancing will be encouraged with signage and “social distancing ambassadors,” volunteers who will remind attendees to keep their distance and be on watch for those not abiding by regulations. Throughout, mask-wearing will be encouraged, though not required.

“I’m cautious, but I’m also a realist,” says Megan Venzin, a New Jersey-based dance fan who will be attending In My Elements this weekend. (Editor's note: Venzin is also a regular Billboard Dance contributor.) “No one knows how long it will be before a return to live events will be considered safe. However, the concept that the BangOn! team has developed is the most comprehensive I've seen yet. They're going above and beyond to cultivate an experience that meets today's comfort levels. If In My Elements pulls this off, it means we'll have a blueprint for bringing the music back, and I'm all for [that]."

Though ticket buyers for In My Elements are almost entirely from New York and the nearby area, none of the performing artists are based in Philadelphia, with some requiring to travel from as far as Houston and Miami to perform. In addition, the event’s final lineup looks quite a bit different than the version still held as current on the In My Elements flyer and social media, with Doc Martin, DJ Holographic and Tony Y Not no longer set to perform. No reason has been given for the drop outs, and the changes have yet to be announced on the event pages’ social media at the time of publishing.

According to organizers, all artists will be subject to the same two-part testing prior to arrival, as well as social distancing regulations at the campgrounds and should be “at the ready to leave” if any tests come back positive.

As part of the process of conceptualizing In My Elements, Monkiewicz and Herman have established an entirely new consulting and production service company called Tested Contained Retreats LLC, which has partnered with “nationally recognized EMT and medical service providers” to help develop customized strategies and production plans for limited retreats, events and conferences. With In My Elements as its pilot, the pair have their sights set on a broader, longer-term plan for hosting gatherings during this singular and quickly evolving moment in history.

“I’m in New York City and I can see the building next to me with over 200 people gathered on a rooftop, with no masks on. People are going to gather, whether they are allowed to or not,” Monkiewicz says. “Our goal is to get people tested -- if they are going to gather, let’s get them tested. We’re not trying to throw events to party, we’re trying to find a way in this new world to provide jobs and get an entire industry restarted, but on a small scale.”

Two months after In My Elements, BangOn! plans to host their annual three-day Elements Festival in Lakewood, Pennsylvania, which has been postponed from its original date in May. Though plans remain vague, Monkiewicz and Herman allude to applying what they learn this weekend regarding social distancing and two-part testing to their next festival, which plans to move forward this September 25-27. Festival passes for Elements are on sale on the website for general admission ($249) or VIP ($419), with neither price reflecting included two-part testing costs. No information about testing requirements is currently present on the site.

"A week is a month in this era, and guidelines are changing fast," Monkiewicz says. "It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will look [in September], but we promise to find the best and safest solution for our guests no matter how things look by then.

“There’s going to be a first time for everything,” he adds. “We realize 20,000 person events might not happen for at least another year and a half, but if we can work with state governments to create safer ways to do small gatherings and outdoor events by [incorporating] testing, we can start to enjoy some of our old life again.”