In the midst of a trying 2020 that has added new value to the simple gift of human connection, a few trailblazers are insisting that safety can be a cornerstone of a damn good time. Pandemic-fueled isolation has led to the rise of precautious parties -- gatherings where guests are willing to pay a higher ticket price, adhere to strict rules and even get their brains tickled by long nasal swabs for the chance to convene with friends in a comparably secure environment.
The question persists, though: Is the risk really worth it? With the right strategy, a few festival producers are saying yes.
“I think some of the uncertainty is slowly being removed regarding whether it’s safe to operate events and the parameters for doing so,” says Brett Herman, co-founder of Elements Festival and Tested Contained Retreats (TCR).
On Sept. 25-28, Herman’s team hosted the second in a series of limited capacity, open-air retreats called “In My Elements,” for which all ticket holders, artists, vendors and staff were subject to two-part COVID-19 testing and other intentionally designed mitigation protocols and procedures. Guests were also required to sign a standard waiver acknowledging the risks associated with attendance.
Following a successful July debut that hosted around 200 attendees and, according to organizers, resulted in zero confirmed new cases, In My Elements’ larger sophomore gathering again took shape at a summer camp in northeast Pennsylvania. Jeff Gould, the owner and director of Independent Lake Camp where the July gathering was held, says that his team was "initially nervous as this concept was new, but seeing the full process from start to finish and the professionalism of the TCR crew firsthand put any worries to rest."
Curated in the spirit of Elements’ annual flagship music festival, which was forced to cancel this year, September's gathering featured 30 artists including Porky and Lee Reynolds of Desert Hearts, Sacha Robotti and Soul Clap across three stages. For many of these artists, it was their first in-person gig since lockdowns began in March. The event also offered well-attended wellness activities such as meditation, yoga and ecstatic dance.
While sunny waterside hangs and late-night sets descended into familiar beat-fueled revelry, strategically placed signage with the words “MASKS REQUIRED” and other social distancing recommendations served as notices of the “new normal.” Reminders to social distance, wash hands and mask up were also posted inside of all the cabins. The BYOB policy, mask-wearing food vendors, Elements-branded face coverings and several hand sanitizer sponsors were other signs of the times.
Mitigation efforts like the aforementioned were paired with the recommendation that guests keep contact tracing journals 14 days prior to arrival, and that they refrain from or limit stops en route to the "tested and contained retreat" to help reduce any potential for exposure, and that they adhere to other guidelines listed in a contract provided to all guests, talent and staff. Once at the event, mask wearing -- which is mandated in public spaces in Pennsylvania -- and social distancing were loosely enforced after guests were cleared to enter the grounds, and consent remained a key message throughout the program -- "always ask before entering within six feet of someone else," was one suggestion offered by organizers. A volunteer group of Safety Ambassadors was also deployed to monitor for unsafe behavior on the dance floor.
All participants were also required to take their first PCR nasal swab test the week prior to the event at designated testing locations across a four-day period. The second rapid antigen test was administered upon arrival, with any positive cases sent home to quarantine with a full refund, a travel voucher and a 50 percent discount for a future Elements event. The latter-half of this protocol was enacted at In My Elements 2, when two positive cases were detected. Both cars and all of the guests inside -- even those who tested negative -- were turned away.
According to Dr. Ajay K. Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences at the University of Wisconsin, the testing protocol at In My Elements was solid, though not entirely fail-safe. "Multiple rounds are better than a one-time test at the time of admission," Sethi says. "The PCR test result indicates that virus was not detected on the day that testing was performed. If someone was exposed and infected the day before PCR testing, then the test may miss detection of the virus."
"The second round of antigen testing one week later would hopefully pick up those misses," he continues, "but the antigen test is not as sensitive as PCR, so false negatives are a possibility for this specific circumstance. Majority of the time, the PCR test will detect virus."
Still, Sethi says, "Behavior matters. We should always be taking the proper precautions."
However, even with large gathering bans -- such as the recently lifted one in Pennsylvania that limited outdoor groups to 250 people or less -- and costly operations, including a need for increased medical and check-in staff, the TCR team is confident that their model is sustainable and scalable. (On Oct. 9, Pennsylvania will again amend their guidelines, with gathering sizes for indoor and outdoor events to be based on a percentage of the overall maximum capacity of each venue.)
“This is much bigger than a business -- this is a community," says Jaron Drucker, event director for In My Elements and owner at Tectonic. "These are thousands of people who have lost their jobs, a part of themselves and what they believe in because of an [illness]. If we can direct the population here to be conscious, aware and safe, then we can continue to do what we are doing.”
But Sethi warns that while testing is crucial, it is not the only tool to prevent the spread of COVID, with attendees ideally mitigating risk on their own before and after the event. "The burden of achieving a truly safe event should not rest entirely on the testing protocol, no matter how sophisticated it is," he says. "Taking the proper precautions before, during, and after the event are critical and even more important than testing to prevent acquiring and spreading the virus."
September's In My Elements event was sold out, with all 250 tickets claimed. Options ranged from $259 for a general admission ticket with camping, to $1,999 for luxury lakeside cabins with two GA tickets. Access to free testing via TCR’s provider was offered to guests without medical insurance. The retreat boasted a higher level of production than its predecessor, with three fully realized stages complete with fire cannons, projection mapping and oversized art cars recognizable to any longtime fan of Elements Festival (or the iconic BangOn!NYC bashes where much of the same team got their start).
Drucker and Herman agree that preparation and strict compliance to protocols are key to achieving what they are now seeing as steady growth. When Herman and his business partner Tim Monkiewicz formed TCR earlier this year, a priority was finding a way to throw their own events as safely as possible. That mission has now expanded as they continue reaching new audiences and working with external clients.
“You have to walk before you can run,” Herman says. “We’re in no rush and we want to get it right, but we definitely want to figure out ways to increase event size. The biggest restriction is gathering capacity, which is set by executive orders. I haven’t been able to speak with a governor personally yet to show them the script, but things are opening up and state and health departments want to see plans of action. I’m happy to increase capacity as long as we believe it can be done safely and legally.”
"Unfortunately, there is disagreement by leaders at the local, state, and federal level as to what society's goal should be in our response to COVID-19," offers Sethi. "Opinions range widely, and as a result, so do the opinions across America. If the goal is to eliminate COVID-19 from our communities, then gatherings of this type or size should not take place. If the goal is to manage the spread of COVID-19, then a gathering of this type can take place, but not without proper protocols and an abundance of caution."
While questions linger around asymptomatic carriers, false negatives and the efficacy of rapid testing, which has received Emergency Use Authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, TCR feels comfortable moving forward in the current climate. TCR's own research, along with developments in testing and medical technology, will likely play a role in how their future gatherings size-up. The cost of throwing a capped retreat like “In My Elements” is in the low six figures, and Herman reported that the most recent event was in the green.
Their protocol will be put to the test again later this month, when Elements and TCR unveil a Halloween experience with more details to be announced soon. There is no word on the capacity or location at this time.
On the opposite coast, another small trust network is also using a combination of PCR and rapid tests to mitigate risk at invite-only events. Yearning Man took place in August at a private resort (the location was asked to be kept anonymous) and hosted 65 guests who were subject to not two, but three tests, taking the concept a step further.
Yearning Man’s protocol was similar to In My Elements', with the added protection of two rounds of rapid testing on-site, the second taking place on day two of the retreat. Guests were also offered a discounted PCR test that they could do at home two weeks before the event.
“There is always a level of risk and all of our guests were aware of that,” says Yearning Man co-producer Brittany Nelson. “The purpose of the test on the second day was to detect any outliers, and to also provide a deeper container of safety for people to feel more comfortable.” (No positive tests were recorded either day, according to Nelson.)
While Sethi warns that the 14-day incubation period is another factor that can lead to missed infections, at Yearning Man, limited interaction with the resort staff, outdoor dining, several acres of space, and elimination of maid service added additional layers of safety. Other tools gave guests a chance to showcase their feelings without judgement. “We gave out different wristbands in red, yellow, and green,” Nelson shares. “It was a wearable that indicated their level of risk tolerance.”
Yearning Man was not thrown for profit, but rather to give its attendees an opportunity to recharge and reconnect with others. “It’s really harder than ever to build new authentic relationships to talk about projects and get inspired by one another,” Nelson says. “With testing, safety measures and following county guidelines, we can do this responsibly.”
Though Nelson believes the path forward for production companies lies in creating smaller, more intimate gatherings, there are others who still see hope in large-scale events. Of that mindset is James Estopinal, better known as Disco Donnie, the name behind massive parties such as Tampa’s Sunset Music Festival, Fort Worth’s Ubbi Dubbi and others. In 2020, his team has launched a “No Parking on the Dance Floor” drive-in series featuring performers like Adventure Club, Sullivan King and Subtronics to keep the schedule filled.
Venues that would normally hold about 30,000 people pre-pandemic now play host to about 1,500 attendees, or roughly 400 to 500 cars. Mask mandates, staff in PPE, frequently cleaned bathrooms, and ample space between parked cars help keep patrons and employees safe.
“The model is technically workable, but features thin margins, which makes sourcing talent difficult,” Estopinal explains candidly. “The model isn’t really a viable long-term solution, financially, but does offer some opportunities to be creative, while keeping the team active and working.”
Though each company takes different steps to bring events to life, they have one thing in common: a desire to move forward safely.
“People realize that this is a work in progress, and they’re willing to rolling with the punches,” Herman says. “It’s a shame COVID isn’t behind us by now, but I think everyone is more committed than ever to finding solutions to keep hosting events.”
With additional reporting by Katie Bain.