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Music In The Air: Concerts Are Back Amidst Great Optimism, Uncertainty

Grace Potter
Grace Potter performing Saturday night on Brown's Island. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Brown’s Island was alive with music this weekend. 

On Saturday, hundreds came to the long stretch of land in the James River to see a performance by Grace Potter and generally bask in a taste of pre-pandemic life, complete with food and beer. 

Christyna Justice, with her husband, dad, and two children - one of whom was born during the pandemic - was among them.

“My dad’s taken me to music since I was very little, so it’s always been a part of our life,” she said. “We wanted to introduce it to our kids as well.”

Her dad, Bill Justice, is a self-described concert junkie. He reckons he goes to at least 20 shows a year. He drove down from Philadelphia to catch the show with his family, his first in over a year. On the whole, they’re feeling optimistic.

“Because it’s an outdoor event, and, you know you can feel safe and still enjoy the music,” he said.

Although the music was the same, the crowd was anything but. Concertgoers were restricted for the majority of the concert to their own pods, except to use the restroom and get refreshments. Pods held four to eight people and were separated from each other by six feet - with masking encouraged, but not required, inside.

For those in attendance, it was an odd setup, but one that was absolutely worth it while vaccine optimism booms and pre-pandemic activity remains out of reach.

Every Venue, Every City, Every State
Jessica Gordon is one of the owners of Broadberry Entertainment Group, which booked Saturday’s show. The company she runs with fellow promoter Lucas Fritz books at a variety of venues around the city, including Brown’s Island.

“The music industry as a whole has really kicked back into gear over the last month, but especially the last few weeks,” Gordon said. 

There’s pent-up demand for anything resembling pre-pandemic life, including live music - demand that’s being released by a wave of optimism. Fans want to go to shows, while musicians and industry workers want to get back to work.

The Broadberry has plans for a series of pod-seating concerts on Brown’s Island (Grace Potter was the first) and one-off shows at other locations. Gordon says they always sell out, “sometimes in minutes.” This type of show makes sense for a larger act with a certain sound, but not others.

“If you were going to see Grace Potter three years ago, before the pandemic, you’d probably still go to Brown’s Island, sit on the ground, and watch her,” Gordon said. Bands with more physical live shows are still largely not able to tour.

Gordon is also working on indoor shows for smaller acts at venues like Richmond Music Hall and The Camel. Audiences will remain masked, divided into tables and with “massively reduced” attendance.

“The Richmond Music Hall typically holds 300 people,” Gordon said, “We can do about 82 people, 84 people seated there with the social distancing. About 50 people at The Camel.”

She said they haven’t scheduled many of those yet, but more are coming as vaccinations rise and confidence grows. The general feeling in the live music industry is that relative normalcy could return in late fall, but “no one really knows exactly when.”

Gov. Ralph Northam recently announced that gathering and distancing restrictions would be lifted by summer if vaccinations are still going up and cases are going down. Gordon is understandably cautious. She could see some distancing restrictions still in place for live events by then.

She says if everything goes well with vaccinations and case numbers, “there’s going to be concerts every night, at every venue, in every city, in every state.”

But what exactly is safe? And when will things really get back to normal? Vaccine optimism is surging, but the most recent modelling shows that another viral surge could be coming this summer as well.

The Bottom Line
Lisa Lee is a public health epidemiologist and ethicist at Virginia Tech, meaning she deals with science, decision making and messaging in the field. Or, as she put it: “the things that we should do in public health with respect to, you know, moving the needle on the idea of reopening our state.” Her message is a familiar one.

“The bottom line is: Get vaccinated as soon as you can.”

While vaccines are great self-protection, their true appeal may lie in how they keep others safe. Like masks, vaccines reduce transmission of the virus.

“Variants happen, mutations happen, when the virus is transmitted,” Lee said. Vaccinations get us to big gatherings because they greatly limit that successful transmission - it follows that the more they’re used, the more effective they become at pushing the virus out of everyday life.

Lee says people can do a lot to gauge the safety of social situations like live music by being aware of how vaccinated the crowd they’re with is. 

That’s not always easy, but it is doable, especially with measures like distancing and masking that create artificial immunity. Pod-style concerts are a great example of those measures in action.

“Gathering [indoors] is still problematic,” Lee said. She pointed to trends showing the highest spread of COVID-19 occurring among young adults throughout most of the pandemic. It’s good to be careful and follow normal pandemic distancing guidelines in crowded indoor situations - mask up, keep six feet from those outside of your bubble - but Lee recommends avoiding those situations all together.

The best protection is still vaccination. It’s the strongest, longest-lasting form of immunity we have.

The ‘New Normal’

The more contagious B.1.1.7 variant now dominates infections in the U.S., and vaccination rates just aren’t high enough to effectively control the spread. 

While that remains the case, outbreaks in low-immunity areas can be expected, and the risk of gathering in large groups or indoors will persist to some extent.

Srinivasan Venkatramanan, a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, said that means people will need to continue calculating the risk of their actions to themselves and those around them. To do that, it’s helpful to think smaller.

“People of a particular age interact with people of a similar age, and then people from a particular county interact more with their own neighborhoods,” Venkatramanan said. “And so, it starts becoming more complex to quantify what it means for the entire state.”

The Biocomplexity Institute is touting so-called “community immunity.” Venkatramanan says that as pockets of unvaccinated people become harder to reach and state restrictions are eased, it will be on localities to decide what they’re ready for.

The institute works with the Virginia Department of Health to release weekly COVID-19 modelling updates. The most recent releases highlight increasing uncertainty and warn against the relaxing of too many precautions. Once again, it comes back to protecting hospitals by avoiding over-capacity situations, thereby reducing the harm of any surge.

How we get there will depend in part on the organization of large events like live music says Lisa Lee, the Va. Tech epidemiologist.

“I know for everyone, it’s been a very lonely and challenging year and a half, but we’re so close to the finish line here. Let’s not put ourselves way back to the start line by letting those variants get us,” Lee said.

Jessica Gordon also urged caution over a faster reopening for her business.

“I think live music, in the way we remember it, is gonna be the last thing to come back, but hopefully it won’t be too far away,” she said.

And all the health uncertainty is paired with exorbitant cost. With only a fraction of audiences in attendance, there is only a fraction of the ticket sales - but the cost to hold shows hasn’t changed. That means the notoriously high percentage of ticket sales needed for a live event to succeed is even higher. The margin for error has shrunk.

But interest is surging and crowds are undeniably coming to shows, whether or not the pandemic is truly on its way out. All Gordon can do is hope and prepare.

“Sometimes I feel optimistic, sometimes I feel like I’m just moving the shows for the fourth or fifth time,” she said, through exasperated laughter. “I don’t want to keep doing that.”


Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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