The place was packed. Churchkey-wielding bartenders furiously cracked tallboys to keep pace with the Tuesday night crowd. The sound of opening beer cans and clanking booze bottles was drowned in the warm, good-vibing music of SoCal reggae-rockers Pepper, who had 600-some fans dancing in close quarters.
It was a typical sold-out show at Neumos, and for a while, almost an escape from the news that’s gripped the region this week.
“If we leave a light on,” shouted bassist/vocalist Bret Bollinger, bending his lyrics to address the elephant in the room, “then the [expletive] coronavirus is going down!”
Infectious diseases rarely make for rock-show applause lines, but such is Seattle life amid the outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2. Concerns over the virus that has killed 11 people in Washington have caused hand sanitizer and medical masks to fly off drugstore shelves, while community groups are beginning to cancel or postpone events. On Wednesday, county officials advised community groups to avoid bringing large groups of people together.
But for now at least, music fans have largely continued filling local clubs for their favorite bands.
“I understand the seriousness of it, but … I still have to go to work. I can’t just sit at home and hope I don’t get it,” said Tom Cruz, a West Seattle man who was among the full house at Neumos.
The 36-year-old bought the Pepper tickets for he and his girlfriend several months ago. Although they never discussed skipping the show in light of the outbreak, Cruz and his sisters, one of whom has children, are reevaluating plans for future events. “Obviously, you’re taking a risk, but every day’s a risk,” he said.
“I know it’s going to get a lot worse,” said Molly Hill, 28, who noted she was more aware of her proximity to other fans. “So right now, [we’re] keeping with our plans until there’s more restrictions on our day-to-day life or recommendations to stay inside or avoid public spaces.”
Earlier this week, an NBC News headline calling Seattle a “ghost town” was widely panned among local social media circles. While some businesses like Chinatown-International District restaurants have experienced declines, local venue operators including Seattle Theatre Group, which runs three theaters and books shows at other clubs, reported Tuesday seeing no changes in attendance or ticket sales. And area concerts have mostly continued as planned.
“You were there last night, people definitely came out,” Steven Severin, co-owner of Neumos and vegan vinyl bar Life on Mars, said Wednesday. “If you walked around Capitol Hill, there were people out all over the place.”
Severin said he and other concert industry colleagues he’s spoken with are taking it day by day while awaiting updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health authorities. “The only thing we can really do is wait and see what happens,” he said. “We’re not panicking. People are paying more attention to washing their hands, which they should’ve been doing anyways.”
A spokesperson for Seattle Theatre Group, which operates the Paramount, Moore and Neptune, said Tuesday it has “heightened daily disinfection practices” at its theaters. STG announced Thursday that refunds are available for ticket holders who are experiencing symptoms or who otherwise feel uncomfortable attending a performance over the next 14 days.
Nonprofit jazz promoter Earshot Jazz emailed supporters on Wednesday, saying ticket holders too sick to attend a performance can instead put the cost of the ticket toward a future show or convert it to a charitable donation.
At the Tacoma Dome, where a high school basketball tournament kicked off Thursday, hand sanitizer will be available at all entry points and more restroom signage promoting hand-washing was added. Custodians are also working to disinfect “high traffic and frequently touched surfaces,” spokesperson Tammi Bryant said in a statement. Earlier this week, Bryant couldn’t say how the coronavirus might impact ticket sales and attendance, since the majority of tickets for its concerts, like upcoming dates with country star Brantley Gilbert and EDM duo Slander, are purchased the first day they go on sale.
So far, the majority of tour cancellations have come in Asia and Italy, where the virus has hit the hardest. Seattle rockers the Supersuckers nixed a short Italy run slated to begin this week due to the outbreak there. At the behest of Miami-area officials, Florida’s popular Ultra Music Festival reportedly became the highest-profile American concert delayed or canceled due to coronavirus concerns. The behemoth EDM fest, which was set to begin March 20, draws an average daily attendance of more than 50,000.
On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he would use his legal authority to cancel large events “if we reach the point where the medical evidence … suggests that this is necessary.” King County Public Health has advised people age 60 and over to avoid large groups as much as possible.
Back at Neumos, several fans admitted having some anxiety about being in a crowded club, but not enough to keep them home. Jenna Strasser and Andrew Hartman decided to hit the Pepper show at the last minute, after Hartman’s co-worker couldn’t use his tickets. Seated at a table in the club’s mezzanine, 20-somethings Strasser and Hartman said they were more intentional about washing their hands and avoiding touching their faces, but, since COVID-19 has more severely impacted older people with preexisting conditions, they didn’t feel it posed as great of a risk to them.
While Strasser said she grew a little anxious watching another fan putting his hands on the club’s walls, it wasn’t as unnerving as a recent Target run.
“It was kinda scary,” she said. “I went to Target this weekend and the medicine was gone, the hand sanitizer was out. People were freaking out. I think that’s what made me most nervous was to see other people almost prepping for this disaster. It’s like, am I prepared enough compared to other people? But what am I preparing for exactly?”
While Neumos is expecting another big turnout for a sold-out Friday concert, some fans have reconsidered their show-going plans. Manda Baur was set to carpool down from Bellingham to see electronic stalwarts Anamanaguchi at the Crocodile on Tuesday. Baur had monitored coronavirus developments since early January and, once news of additional cases and the first death in Washington state and additional cases came last Saturday, Baur’s crew decided to skip it. Days later, the New York band postponed the show anyway, citing “unforeseen circumstances.” Anamanaguchi’s representatives did not respond to questions about whether coronavirus outbreak concerns spurred the move.
The same night, Portland-area resident Kara Savoie and her husband were set to catch veteran headbangers Black Label Society at Showbox SoDo. Initially, the couple planned on taking the train up to Seattle, but figured they would drive instead “to shave off some of the risk.” Several years ago, Savoie’s husband underwent a bone-marrow transplant after developing leukemia. The 57-year-old still takes medication that weakens his immune system. Ultimately, they scrapped the trip entirely, eating $200 in ticket costs after splurging on a VIP table. “We thought, yeah, it’s probably not a good idea to be in a room full of people,” Savoie said. “I’m not paranoid, it’s just part of the deal.”
It was the second show the couple missed that week, after Cake rescheduled two Portland dates without explanation. Despite the disappointment, the couple wasn’t exactly sitting at home sulking.
“We’re actually at the beach,” said Savoie, calling from the Oregon coast. “We’re like, we gotta go do something! We have the day off.”