Its wait-and-see approach is a common one, and it might be right one.
[Updated] "In cooperation with city and state officials and local tourism agencies, the Festival is monitoring the situation carefully. We continue to prepare for a successful and safe Jazz Fest."
This is an official statement from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell on its response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak. It’s measured, non-committal, gives nothing away, and it’s likely all there is to say right now. When Dr. Jennifer Avegno, Director of the City of New Orleans Health Department delivered an update on the city’s preparations for Coronavirus on March 3, she pointed out that there are no cases in the city or state right now, nor are there any that are being evaluated to see if they are due to COVID-19 and asked people to prepare for Coronavirus in much the same way that they would get ready for hurricanes.
“We’re asking folks to make sure you have enough medications to make you have enough medications to last you for 30 days,” she says. “We’re also asking people to check on their vulnerable family friends and neighbors. We don’t know everything about this outbreak, but we do know it appears to be affecting elderly individuals and those with chronic medical conditions.”
One of the challenges posed by the outbreak is the uncertainty that accompanies it. For many, Avegno says, the disease will present as a mild illness. “Most people are going to have very mild symptoms or feel like they had a bad cold,” she says. Still, anxiety over spreading the disease prompted two Metairie school teachers who traveled overseas during the Mardi Gras break to stay home from school to avoid the possible spread of the Coronavirus, even though neither visited countries in restricted travel areas or showed any signs of illness.
Still, concern about spreading Coronavirus has prompted drastic measures. On Wednesday, Billboard reported that the Ultra Music Festival in Miami has been canceled or postponed, and that the 21-year-old electronic dance music festival won't take place March 20-22 as scheduled. Mayor Francis Suarez asked organizers to halt this year's festival under the circumstances, and they complied. In Japan, the Stardom professional wrestling promotion has canceled some shows and will broadcast one from an empty arena, and the Italian soccer league Serie A postponed five matches that it initially considered playing in empty stadiums as well. Closer to home, that anxiety has prompted the World Petrochemical Conference to cancel its convention in New Orleans, but so far, it’s the only convention to do so.
The anxiety is understandable. There are no contexts in which the word “pandemic” isn’t scary, and although the estimate that between two and three percent of those infected will die sounds low, that translates to more than 227 million deaths worldwide.
Festival Productions—the promoters of Jazz Fest—have to be watching the example of South by Southwest, which starts next week in Austin, Texas. Like Jazz Fest, SXSW attracts an audience from around the world, and concern about the role it might play in spreading the disease prompted many to speculate that it would be scaled down or perhaps even canceled. A number of participating companies pulled out including Amazon Studios, Twitter, Facebook, Concord Records, and TikTok. According to a spokesman for the China-based TikTok, “While we think the risk is relatively low, we are erring on the side of caution as we prioritize safety for our team, creators, partners, artists, and brands…. We are looking at a variety of alternative ways to bring parts of the previously scheduled experience to audiences in creative new forms."
Still, organizers have decided to continue with the festival as planned. According to a statement posted at SXSW.com, “SXSW is working closely on a daily basis with local, state, and federal agencies to plan for a safe event. As a result of this dialogue and the recommendations of Austin Public Health, we are proceeding with the 2020 event with the health and safety of our attendees, staff, and volunteers as our top priority.” It continues: “[Austin Public Health] will continue to communicate with the CDC and health departments nationwide as many cities host large events. At this time, no health departments in the state have requested the cancellation of any gatherings as the current risk of person-to-person spread in their jurisdictions remains low.”
According to Mark Escott, the interim medical director and health authority for Austin Public Health. “Right now there's no evidence that closing South by Southwest or other activities is going to make this community safer. We're constantly monitoring that situation.”
Neither Coachella or Bonnaroo has addressed the spread of COVID-19 yet, and they’re likely watching the SXSW situation as well. A second question all these festivals including Jazz Fest may have to deal with is artist cancellations. In 2016, Rihanna cancelled her appearance at Lollapalooza Columbia during the outbreak of the Zika virus, and Twitter's decision not to attend SXSW has cost the festival a keynote speaker in Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey. On Thursday, Ozzy Osbourne also canceled his appearances in connection with screening of the two-hour documentary Biography: The Nine Lives of Ozzy Osbourne. Osbourne has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, and Coronavirus infections have proven to be more threatening to the elderly and the infirm. So far, no touring artists playing Jazz Fest or other summer festivals have announced that they won’t risk exposure, but it’s very possible that the lineup will undergo late changes as individual acts opt not to perform.
Everybody in the business of presenting large, public gatherings is trying to strike a note of responsible concern. They don’t want to seem blind to the potential danger, but they don’t want to scare people off either. And, in most cases, they’re not doing so out of simple self-interest. Jazz Fest claims to have $300 million economic impact on the region, and there’s no denying the importance of Jazz Fest to New Orleans’ economy. A year without Jazz Fest would be economically traumatic for the city, and that same concern has prompted the WWE to announce that it is taking a similar wait and see policy for this year’s WrestleMania in Tampa, and the NCAA is exploring its options with the NCAA Basketball Tournament—“March Madness”—just weeks away.
“If you can think of it, it’s something that we’ve gone through an analysis around,” NCAA Chief Operating Officer Donald Remy said, and that includes the possibility of playing games in empty arenas. ”We’ve contingency planned for all circumstances.”
Jazz Fest is likely doing the same, but its official statement doesn’t say that. Since Festival Productions has no history of overexplaining, saying the least that can be said is right on brand. Still, the invocation of other parties involved in the consultations reveals that whatever decision FPI makes won’t be solely out of concern for Jazz Fest’s bottom line. Musicians and culture bearers would certainly be impacted be a scaled down or canceled Jazz Fest, as would everybody connected to the tourism industry in New Orleans. Since tourism remains the city’s largest industry, a lot of people have a vested interest in the safe, successful Jazz Fest that FPI says it’s preparing for.
Updated at 10:04 p.m.
The announcement that Ozzy Osbourne withdrew from SXSW was added after the story's publication.
Updated March 7 at 4:07 p.m.
There have been enough developments since this post including the cancellation of SXSW that I have written a new post to process those updates.