As musicians travel the US, how are tour managers ensuring they’re safe from COVID?

As live concerts return, tour managers say they’re juggling a complex and rapidly changing ecosystem of rules around COVID. Photo by ​​Taya Ovod/Shutterstock.

Live concerts are back for the most part. But they don’t look like the shows of yore. Entertainment companies like Live Nation and AEG Live have announced they will be requiring coronavirus vaccines or negative test results to attend their concerts, and they’ll be checking IDs. 

In LA, mask mandates are also back for both indoor and large outdoor events. But if the venues aren’t making big enough changes, some artists are taking safety precautions upon themselves. Foo Fighters, The Killers, Maroon 5, and more have all said they will require the audience to either be vaccinated or show a negative test result. Country artist Jason Isbell did the same, recently cancelling a Mississippi concert because the venue wouldn't comply. 

KCRW talks to three tour managers about the new way to tour now: Nashville-based Riley Vasquez, Kendal Beahm, and Philadelphia-based Connor Feimster. 

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

KCRW: Kendall, you’re wrapping up a quick tour with a four-piece bluegrass band. What kind of precautions are you taking? 

Kendal Beahm: “We were wearing masks. We kind of check in with everyone every morning. I have hand sanitizer everywhere. I have masks everywhere. I have rapid tests on my bus. I have vitamins for everyone to take in the morning, kind of at their discretion. ... Since we're majority or all vaccinated, we are not testing every day now.”

Connor, you're in the planning process for your first tour in nearly two years. Tell us about that.

Connor Feimster: “I was selling merch previously for Allen Stone when COVID hit halfway through our tour. But I'm gearing up as tour manager and merchandiser for the band Mannequin Pussy from Philadelphia. ... We're doing our best to make sure everybody's gonna be safe and vaccinated. I believe every band member and every crew member of all three of the bands on our tour are going to be vaccinated, which is very nice. And we're just going to be working hand in hand with each venue in each city about what they're doing to keep everything at bay and keep everybody safe. So we're just going to try to meet them halfway and figure out the best option for everybody. … They are entirely indoor clubs save for one festival in Boise.”

Is that anxiety-inducing at all?

Feimster: “A little bit, in theory. One of the jobs I got during COVID was actually at a music venue, one of the venues that we are playing on our tour. And the fact that I've seen both sides now as an attendee and as an employee ... it's nice to know that most of these venues we're going to are requiring masks and COVID vaccination proof, or proof of the negative tests within 48 or 72 hours, depending on the city. 

We're not afraid to take public health into account when it comes to our shows in certain cities and mandates and stuff like that. But obviously it is up to the city's discretion whether we can require vaccination or negative testing. Our band has been outspoken about how well that process has worked because they just came off of a tour with Japanese Breakfast for about three weeks. And just about every show required that and everybody was fine. It was an ideal setup and a really good process. We're just trying to keep it wholesome in the punk community. It's really hard these days.”

Riley, you’re the tour manager for a “worship tour.” What is that, and what kind of venues are you playing?

Riley Vasquez: “It’s three Christian artists who make music for the church, and that is a genre that has become a little bit larger over the last few years. ... We are a tour of nine buses and three trucks. We're traveling with a caterer. There's around 100 people out on the road every day. 

Within the one week leading up to our tour, I think our COVID protocols increased five different times. ... We actually have dealt with some COVID on the tour. One of the artists came down with COVID and wasn't able to actually make the first couple of shows, which was a huge, huge bummer. But everyone rallied, and we ended up finding a replacement until they were able to finish quarantine. And then we had a child on the tour come down with COVID. And so as soon as we found out that he was not feeling well, we tested him. We’re keeping rapid tests [on hand]. ... That way, we're just ready. 

But just this weekend, we had a driver out. ... He went to the hotel, woke up with a fever. … I got the text and had to fly in a new driver. In situations like that, it sucks. First of all, we're doing everything we can. We're wiping down buses, we are requiring masks of everyone on the tour. We are not requiring vaccination, but we are requiring weekly testing. It's still a huge conversation.”

But why aren’t you requiring vaccinations on the tour? 

Vasquez: “I don't know why we're not requiring vaccinations. The venues we're playing currently on this tour aren't requiring vaccinations, but we are strictly requiring masks. And we are strictly requiring testing. ... Before every weekend, everyone has to submit a negative COVID test. You're literally taking a picture of your tests, you're uploading it to a form, and you can't get on the bus unless that has been submitted as a negative. 

I've seen other tours where the entire tour is canceled, or a couple of crew guys at once are getting it. I feel like we've done a pretty good job. Plus, we're outdoors on this one, mostly. And so I think that is helping to cut down transmission. But we've got one indoor show coming up at a smaller civic center arena on Thursday. And so everyone knows the policies are even more increased. We're just telling people, ‘Hey, don't hang out ... be careful.’ They feel the weight. And they also remember that a year ago, they were out of work. And so everyone seems to be taking pretty good precautions.”

​​Kendal, are your bands required to be vaccinated? 

Beahm: “It never got to the part of the conversation where it's required. All of our people are vaccinated willingly. ... I'm six people max on tour, and then plus one for a driver, so I don't have a large production. So I know everyone's status and they are vaccinated. We do have to get [lab] tests before we go on a road. ... And we have to make sure that we're negative 72 hours before we get on the bus. This is our first one. So we're making up our rules as we go to roll with the punches and what's going on in the world.”

Connor, how do you roll with the punches as the situation continues to change so rapidly? 

Feimster: “It's rough. It's a lot of email tag right now, especially with venues and getting info from our other bands first and foremost. But the way that we're approaching it is basically we're going to comply with city ordinances and venue rules and stuff like that. ... And if there's a venue that doesn't seem to care about the safety of the fans, then we're gonna have to have a talk with them. And we're gonna have to figure out an alternative or, worst case, postponement, or something like that. I'm lucky that I'm going out with a band that has done a tour during COVID already, so they kind of have an idea of what's expected. 

They're not massive shows, by any means. So we're not necessarily concerned in terms of those numbers. ... And if you don't want to get vaccinated to come to a show, then you can get a ticket refund. You can't expect this to go away and try to come back into the one setting that's the most dangerous for a literal pandemic, and stomp your feet and get angry about it. So if you decide not to get a vaccination, there's always a refund. And that's even generous for a lot of the venues, because they need to stay open.”

That's a delicate balance, because people haven’t been making money. But at the same time, you don't want to have an outbreak blamed on your venue. And you don't want to have to cancel gigs.

Feimster: “Exactly. It's all part of cogs in the same unfortunate machine. We figure out the best option for everybody involved, whether it's crew members, band members, or fans. There's been a lot of tumultuousness about this in the music community. And even in the crew community, even online and on Facebook, people just don't want to wear a mask, don't want to get vaccinated, but also want to go back to work. And it's just kind of a gray area and makes no sense. We need to figure out a way that works for everybody, in a way that doesn't put anybody in harm's way.”

Riley, you're probably touring in some places that are more resistant to mask mandates. Do members of your crew feel like they're in more danger? Is there tension there between the crew, the bands, and the communities?

Vasquez: “I wouldn't say there's any tension. Anytime you grab a group of 100 people from all over the country, there's going to be people with different views. But no matter what that is, everyone has been super willing to wear a mask. And unfortunately, I have to be the bad guy a lot. I have to be, ‘Hey, don't forget, wear a mask. Hey, where's your mask? You need to be wearing this mask. Don't forget, there's people on the tour who may not be as healthy as you.’ And that sucks. I hate being the bad guy to remind people like that. … But it's still fresh on everybody's mind that we're back at work and they don't want a tour to get canceled. So they're doing what they can to make it work, whether or not they are vaccinated, or no matter what they believe, they're doing what they got to do to make it work.”

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