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Eric Church concert, Rupp’s first big show since COVID began, felt risky. Here’s why.

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As the audience inside Rupp Arena began to swell ahead of Eric Church’s concert last weekend, two messages flashed overhead on the ribbon marquees. These spaces usually provided info on upcoming shows. Sandwiched between all that, though, were notices dealing with the evening at hand.

“Protect yourself and protect others,” read the first. The other was more matter-of-fact: “Masks are encouraged at today’s event.”

“Encouraged” is the key word here. There was no mandate that masks were required for admission to what was to be the largest scale concert event staged at Rupp since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted some 18 months earlier. Mask wearing, which somehow became an absurdly divisive political issue throughout the pandemic, was left as a safety recommendation as the fourth wave of the coronavirus continued to run rampant.

I want events like Church’s concert to play out as much as anyone. I’ve been writing about live music events at Rupp and elsewhere for over four decades. It’s something I am immovably passionate about. But we live in an altered world where we have to become more selfless if this kind of art and entertainment can truly be considered safe. All of us have to do more – from artists to promoters to venues to, especially, patrons. We all deserve to feel safe.

Last weekend at Rupp, I simply didn’t.

For the sake of full disclosure, I’m of a somewhat advanced age with a health issue or two, so mask wearing on my part was a done deal. But looking at the gathering country music fans entering Rupp, especially the more concentrated groups packing together on the arena floor to flank two sides of Church’s in-the-round stage, led to the conclusion that the “suggestion” for the night was largely being shrugged off.

To my eyes, the number of masked patrons was, at best, miniscule. Rupp employees were masked up. The bulk of the audience, however, seemed to view this concert event as business – or rather, pleasure – as usual.

The crowd starts to gather on the Rupp Arena floor before the start of the Eric Church concert on Sept. 17.. It was the largest concert event at Rupp since the COVID-19 pandemic with 15,000-plus attending.
The crowd starts to gather on the Rupp Arena floor before the start of the Eric Church concert on Sept. 17.. It was the largest concert event at Rupp since the COVID-19 pandemic with 15,000-plus attending.
Eric Church in concert on Friday, September 17th, 2021. Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky was the location of long awaited opening night of the 21/22 tour. Church is a vaccine advocate but did not require proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend.
Eric Church in concert on Friday, September 17th, 2021. Rupp Arena in Lexington, Kentucky was the location of long awaited opening night of the 21/22 tour. Church is a vaccine advocate but did not require proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend.

If there is one certainty to how any of us live our lives in a COVID-19 world, it’s that the term “as usual” no longer applies.

This was the second large-scale concert event I have attended since COVID began. The other was last month’s Railbird festival at Keeneland. It drew approximately 30,000 attendees per day. Church’s concert brought in roughly 15,000 (a very strong turnout for any Rupp event not involving basketball). With some time elapsed, I can honestly state I felt safer at Railbird.

The reasons were simple. Although the audience turnout was double (in one day) that of the Church show, Railbird was held outdoors. That alone lessened the spread of infection. But the big difference was Railbird made proof of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test for the coronavirus a requirement for admission. Rupp – for the Church show, at least - did not.

The crowd at the Eric Church in concert on Sept. 17 in Rupp Arena was largely maskless, with no vaccine or negative COVID requirements.
The crowd at the Eric Church in concert on Sept. 17 in Rupp Arena was largely maskless, with no vaccine or negative COVID requirements.
Fans cheer as John Moreland performs at the Railbird Festival at Keeneland in Lexington on Aug. 28. Fans had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to get in but were not required to wear a mask.
Fans cheer as John Moreland performs at the Railbird Festival at Keeneland in Lexington on Aug. 28. Fans had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to get in but were not required to wear a mask.

If you attended the Saturday edition of Railbird, you know it had myriad problems separate from the pandemic that stemmed from inadequate water supplies to staffing shortages for concessions. That’s a discussion for another time. Since the entire event was spread out over such a vast area, vaccinated individuals with the deepest of COVID concerns could still enjoy the music and avoid more concentrated audience pockets near the stage if they chose.

In addition to no mask mandate, the Church concert did not have a vaccination/negative test requirement in place for admission. Being an indoor event simply added to the COVID queasiness. It did to mine, anyway.

Before going any further, I will say I have dealt with Rupp and Lexington Center (now Central Bank Center) officials for many years and their dutifulness when it comes to public safety has never, from my standpoint, been in question. Last winter and spring, when they began producing concert events with scaled-down capacity, social distancing and mask requirements, they were diligent in the extreme when it came to safety precautions. So my concerns here don’t boil down to kneejerk finger pointing. The issue is bigger and involves anyone attending any kind of indoor event.

While most in attendance Eric Church’s country music show at Rupp Arena Sept. 17 were maskless, these fans choose to wear masks.
While most in attendance Eric Church’s country music show at Rupp Arena Sept. 17 were maskless, these fans choose to wear masks.

What we have to wrap our heads around is the fact we aren’t back to normal in dealing with COVID. We’re not even close. Sure, we were all teased last spring when the pandemic seemed to be abating, only to be slapped in the face with a reality check that came in the form of the Delta Variant. An ensuing fourth wave of the pandemic has seen hospitalizations soar and school/work/personal regimens disrupted anew. We may have thought we were through with the worst the pandemic had to hit us with, but we’re simply not.

But what we do have now that we didn’t when the world locked down in 2020 is a vaccine. It’s not a failsafe for immunity. It’s not a Get-Out-Of-COVID-Free Card. But you need only to look at the daily breakdown of hospitalized and ventilator-bound patients to see the disparity between vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals.

This is as far of a crusade on the topic of vaccinations as I want to take this. There are other, more pertinent platforms to debate the specifics of the issue. But the overriding conclusion of where we stand now seems to be simple. We have to do more to protect ourselves and especially others. Otherwise, the normalcy our country is literally dying for will slip further out of reach.

Walter Tunis has reviewed music albums and concerts for the Lexington Herald-Leader since 1980. He can be reached at walter.tunis@uky.edu.

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