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Health Professionals on the Mental Toll of Returning to Shows Mid-Pandemic

As concerts start up again, from Garth Brooks to Foo Fighters, Billboard spoke with therapists and crowd-behavior experts on Whether to Go and How Not to Freak Out.

Cramming into a festival crowd with 20,000 of your closest friends has rarely seemed so terrifying. Yes, most of us are vaccinated, but crowd psychology remains complicated: Do we wear masks at shows? Try to keep a healthy distance from other people? Worry about those in the audience who might have unvaccinated kids at home, or simply chose not to get the vaccine?

As concerts start up again, from Garth Brooks to Foo Fighters, Billboard spoke with therapists and crowd-behavior experts on Whether to Go and How Not to Freak Out.

Claudia Glaser-Mussen, New York psychotherapist, performer in children’s band Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could: There’s absolutely fear, [especially] at an indoor venue, really shoved up against each other. There’s a lot of post-traumatic experience that people are having, internally, around the risks.

What I’m hearing from a lot of my clients is, “Yes, I’m going to go hear live music, because we miss it so much, but I’m going to wear a mask.” It depends on the venue — open-air thing, no mask; indoors, yes, choosing to wear a mask.


What we know about crowd behavior, there’s a loss of responsibility of the individual and a universality of behavior in the crowd. If you decide to put a mask on, and everybody around you isn’t wearing a mask, it can create a lot of anxiety. It’s like being an outsider somehow.

People who consider themselves to be outgoing are faring a bit better in terms of feeling safe. Part of this is subjectively how you see yourself. People who consider themselves more introverted are just “slowly, slowly, see what it feels like for you.” Create a world for yourself that feels the most comfortable.

Ross Silverman, health policy and management professor, Indiana University: That communal experience of being at a performance of live music is almost unmatched. It’s something I have desperately missed over the last year and a half. I’ve got my flights scheduled to get down to New Orleans Jazz Fest this fall.

After a year and a half of not being in large crowds, it’s totally understandable that it may be a bit overwhelming to be in a large group of people — even in an outdoor setting where we know that the chances of transmission are much, much lower.


While the vaccine is widely available, it is not equitably available to all adults. It may not be available in their neighborhoods, they may not be able to get time off and it’s not available as easily to children. So we’re going to need to continue to protect through things like masking and social-distancing.

I don’t think you have anything much to worry about as far as becoming a vector through which they may get infected. One position you can place yourself in would be as an ally for those who still cannot be vaccinated. Somebody who’s vaccinated could show it’s OK to be in public in a mask, as a sign that we’re not there yet, as far as our population totally being protected against the virus.

Nicholas Evans, bioethicist, associate professor, University of Massachusetts Lowell: People travel for festivals. They don’t go to the festival around the corner. They cross state lines. They may go to other countries. These are the kinds of events that can drive new outbreaks and new clusters of cases because you have people mixing with each other in combinations that they wouldn’t normally. They’re not just breaking their bubbles a little bit. They’re creating whole new bubbles — and then breaking those when they return. Which is a recipe, potentially, for large outbreaks of disease.

I’ve been thinking about whether I’m going to do any vacation away from my local area in the last couple of days. I live in New England. In Massachusetts, the vaccination rate is 60%. Same in Maine. In Vermont, it’s 65%. If I’m going to Mississippi or Alabama or Arkansas or Louisiana, all of which have roughly one-third, that’s a very different story. Then you add the vaccination rates of the festivalgoers. Even the people who are part of the service industries: Are they vaccinated? That’s really where you should start when you’re planning to travel for a festival.


If 20,000 or 30,000 people are going to descend on a town that’s only got a one-third vaccination rate and the other two-thirds happen to be the poor, young, Black or brown workers who perform service work for the festivals, then we’re actually putting them at risk.

If you’re a festival company, my first suggestion would be: Make sure everyone’s vaccinated and give people access to the vaccine. Employ the nurses and the pharmacists to actually give people vaccines onsite. Yeah, it costs money, but let me tell you, a festival being known as the festival that caused COVID to come back in that state is going to be a lot worse.

Andrew Noymer, associate public health professor, University of California Irvine: Herd immunity doesn’t mean everybody is vaccinated. It means most people are vaccinated, and the other people are riding on the backs of those who are vaccinated. If you’re vaccinated, you can go out to the concerts. Wear a mask and be a nice person if the venue tells you to. If the venue doesn’t tell you, then don’t, if you don’t want to.

The nuance is in the fall and winter. I do expect COVID to come back. I don’t expect it to come back as severely as before. Venues might say, “Well, you have to mask now.” It’s not just going to be a one-way street back to where we once were. There are going to be some bumps in the road.


I have not been to a show. I am fully vaccinated as of the spring. It’s not because I secretly think it’s still dangerous — I’m telling your readers that it’s safe to go. I’m not the kind of guy who goes to 50 shows a year. But I would go. Best Coast is scheduled to come around in February, so I definitely have my eye on that.

George Loewenstein, economic and psychology professor, Carnegie Mellon University: The element of risk isn’t entirely eliminated, so maybe people will be a little bit choosier. You always have to pay, and now there’s this extra element of cost, which is the small amount of risk you’re taking. This element will possibly also enhance the pleasure of the people who do decide to attend. Your brain is going to tell you, “If I’m taking a risk, it must be worth it.”

I’m more of a theater person. I have been to the movie theater, but I haven’t yet been to live theater, which I’ve really missed. It didn’t scare me at all going to the movie theater. I found it depressing — all the seats that were taped off, so the theater couldn’t accommodate the number of people required to really make it economically viable. Yesterday, I was at a shopping mall, and there was a huge, permanently-closed-down movie complex, which made me sad.

When you go to a concert, you’re performing a public service. You’re keeping the music industry alive, for yourself and for other people.