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Videos of passengers rejoicing went viral on Monday after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced it would no longer require masks on planes and public transportation. But for many touring musicians across the country, it wasn’t a moment for cheers—more like a giant, collective gulp.
After all, prior to the federal court ruling that prompted the TSA’s policy change, many nightclubs nationwide—even in COVID-cautious cities like San Francisco—stopped requiring masks and checking vaccines. Planes and public transportation were some of the last crowded areas where masks were required, and now that final layer of protection has been stripped away.
COVID cases are climbing in the U.S. due to the omicron BA.2 subvariant, and public health experts warn that they’re probably undercounted because of decreased lab testing. As a result, some independent artists are weighing health concerns and financial risks against their aspirations to make a living from their craft.
“Artists don’t make a ton. Oftentimes they don’t have any health insurance. If they do get sick, it can be a crisis, especially with a sickness like this,” says Oakland rapper Lateef the Truthspeaker.
Indeed, if a musician gets COVID on the road, not only would they and their crew lose income from canceled gigs, but they’d also be responsible for out-of-pocket expenses like rescheduled flights and hotels in which to quarantine while far from home. And that’s after two years without touring, the primary way most independent musicians make a living.
Although there’s no official tally of how many touring musicians have gotten COVID on the road recently, anecdotal evidence suggests this group is particularly vulnerable: Artists like Mitski, Spoon and Bob Mould have canceled shows because of COVID outbreaks in recent weeks. And others, such as Los Angeles art-pop singer Sasami, have taken to social media to beg fans to keep their masks on at shows. “If we get Covid and have to cancel shows I’m fully FUCKED,” Sasami wrote.
Lateef has chosen to play mostly local shows in the coming months aside from one performance in Paris in July. “I think asking people to [risk their health] while they’ve had friends or family members that have potentially died from this disease is messed up. It’s a big ask,” he says.
While many Americans have resigned themselves to the likelihood of eventually catching COVID, disability rights activists have been speaking out about how abandoning masking in crowded settings unnecessarily puts immunocompromised people in harm’s way.
That would have been the case for Lateef’s late collaborator Gift of Gab, the Blackalicious MC who died in 2021 after years of living with diabetes and kidney failure. “Gab was immunocompromised. He wasn’t gonna be able to get a vaccine, and he was very, very frustrated about people’s unwillingness to think about other people or consider their health,” Lateef says. “I just feel like the whole orientation has been wrong in terms of taking care of human beings during this time.”
Berkeley rapper Al Patrone agrees. Although he would have loved to organize concerts for his group Blazewave this summer, he decided to take a job with a video game company in South Korea instead. A big part of the draw is that country’s culture of masking, robust public health messaging and temperature checks.
“Going there it was like, checks everywhere, masks everywhere. Everyone was on top of it,” he says of his time in South Korea last summer. “So, coming back here, I would love to tour, but I don’t think America has stepped up in a technological way to make people feel safe as far as taking temperatures and keeping track of outbreaks.”
Robbie Kowal, owner of Bay Area event production company HUSHconcerts, would like to see masks and vaccine checks continue in the U.S.. But lately, he’s been coming to grips with the reality that many people have given up. “It got turned into this polarizing thing, and no one wants to fight a war over public health anymore,” he tells me over the phone while driving from Coachella, where he and his staff put on a silent disco at the music festival.
This year, Coachella did away with masking, vaccine checks and PCR tests, a move that prompted outcry among public health experts. And Kowal says that many contracts from talent agencies now come with clauses that make promoters financially liable for canceling shows out of safety concerns if there’s no government mandate to do so. That’s even if there’s a new virus outbreak.
“In my case, I’m going to do what I need to do to protect myself and my staff—that means getting them vaxxed, making sure they have access to the high-grade masks if they want them,” says Kowal, noting that he’s immunocompromised and wears an N95 mask on planes and in crowds.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, so I can try to control my own area and my own tour family to wade through whatever’s going to happen,” says Robert Schneider, a San Leandro concert production manager who recently wrapped up a 19-city tour with Korn where the band and crew were tested at random. He says no one got sick.
A 40-year veteran of the business, Schneider went the extra mile to make sure the musicians he went on tour with would stay safe: He got certified as a COVID compliance officer at the start of the pandemic. “I can assure you that as a touring community, we will likely be more careful than the general public.”