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Fest Food in the Covid Era

Updated: May 26


So 2020 was a bust. From Ultra in Miami to Coachella in the California desert, Hangout Fest in Alabama to Electric Forest in Michigan, Bonnaroo in Tennessee to Governors Ball in NYC. EVERYTHING WAS “POSTPONED.” “Postponed” being an interesting way of putting it; an almost universal phrasing by producers to gently notify ticketholders of what we all knew to be the truth, the festival season for 2020 had been CANCELLED. No road trips, no camping, no gatherings, no deep transcendental meditation to the pretty lights and banging beats in a sea of people, trees, or sand (depending on your festival of choice). 2020 was a lost year for so many people throughout the world. And while the loss of festivals pales in comparison to the (as of now) 3 million lives lost to the Covid-19 pandemic, the live music and performance industry was profoundly impacted by this global health crisis, with so many workers dependent on these industries out of a job.

As we get deeper in to 2021 and closer to the heart of the festival and concert season, one thing is becoming clear: optimism that vaccines would help return live music to pre-pandemic normality by summer is beginning to wane. Already the festival season this year is mimicking the festival season of 2020 at this point: A few cancellations, and a bunch of “postponements” to September. We all know what happened to those postponements in 2020….it remains to be seen what will become of the postponements in 2021. Events like Bonnaroo in Tennessee and Electric Zoo in New York have already announced their lineups with top performers and A-list stars heading the tickets. But with daily new infections hovering around 70,000 (as of this writing), and the conflicting statistic of over 3 million daily vaccinations, it’s becoming difficult to envision these large festivals returning in a few months with any sense of normality. Tens of thousands of people, tightly packed up to the front of a stage to witness Megan Thee Stallion gyrate at Bonnaroo or Carnage drop beats in NYC still seems so painfully and impossibly far away from where we currently are.

So what can we expect from a drastically altered festival season a year and a half in the making while a pandemic presumably continues to rage? And what should the vendors and producers of food at said festivals expect from a season where it’s anything but “business as usual!”?

The answer to those questions probably depends more on local politics than on local infection rates. While this post has NO interest in delving in to political conversation it would be impossible to ignore the differences of current restrictions between various states. While Florida has signaled a willingness to open up to large scale events, New York City is still limited to outdoor gatherings of no more than 200 people. Michigan’s Democratic governor, whose lockdown measures were the target of high profile protests at the state capitol in 2020 would seem less likely to allow the Electric Forest Festival gathering to take place given the state’s current Covid surge than Texas governor Greg Abbot, who signed Executive Order GA-34 while tweeting, “I just announced Texas is OPEN 100%. EVERYTHING. I also ended the statewide mask mandate.” In fact at Globe Life Field in Arlington, the Texas Rangers have been playing to full capacity, mask-less crowds since opening day.

So if you’re hoping for a familiar festival experience in 2021, you may need to look at WHERE your festival of choice is being hosted above anything else. It’s difficult to imagine large shows entrenched in their locations temporarily relocating to less restrictive states; Governors Ball is not GovBall if not in NYC and Coachella is not Coachella if its not IN Coachella Valley….Coachella, by the way, has already announced it’s cancellation in 2021 and return for 2022!

By dropping lineups with heavy hitters and major acts, many festivals have gone all-in on a return to normal by September and gambled that their local governments will lift restrictions in time to admit all the guests who have already purchased their tickets. Assuming, for the purposes of this post, that some kind of normal has returned by September, what will fest food look like in the Covid and post-Covid era? How will it be served? How and where will it be consumed? How will local Health Departments evolve their codes and rules to insure best practices to prevent illness?

To begin that speculation it needs to be emphatically noted that Covid 19 is NOT a foodborne illness. It is NOT transmitted through the consumption of tainted or improperly handled food. Germs like salmonella, E. Coli and Norovirus are commonly known illnesses that are carried on the foods we eat. Covid 19, by contrast is a respiratory illness that is carried in droplets exhaled by infected individuals and inhaled by healthy people in close physical proximity, leading to infection; it is AIRborne, not FOODborne.

Just because Covid 19 is not a foodborne illness, does not mean that food SERVICE cannot contribute to the spread of illness. In order to eat, you gotta drop the mask! Once you drop the mask, the transmission of droplets (infected or not) from one person to another is MUCH more likely. Obviously eating in an open-air environment is less likely to lead to transmission than an indoor environment. The majority of festivals are outdoor events and thus, the risk is lowered by this fact. However when you are talking about tens of thousands of people gathered closely trying to eat their gyros, pizza slices, and burgers and fries, it’s hard to imagine such a scenario not alarming public health officials. One possibility for organizers to troubleshoot this would be to have dedicated “Food Zones,” where a limited number of people are allowed to enter and order their food, sit at appropriately spaced tables and lower their masks to eat. Consumption of food and beverage any place other than these “Food Zones” would be prohibited. This is a less than ideal situation for events that in the last decade have placed strong emphasis on guests remaining properly hydrated to mitigate the effects of high temperatures, loss of water to dancing and sweating, and any recreational activities guests might be engaging in.

Also problematic with the dedicated “Food Zone” approach to food and beverage at large music festivals is the economic impact. The more points of sale at any busy event, whether it’s Dodger Stadium, a large music festival or a Times Square McDonalds, the more revenue. Restricting food and beverage sales to a smaller footprint with reduced traffic will undoubtedly send sales plummeting. Where does that lost revenue get made up? Do producers accept the losses as the price to remain open in 2021? Do producers pass the expense on to vendors as higher fees? Do prices increase to the customer to make up this loss? How much more are you willing to pay for a cheeseburger that already cost $13 a la carte? Unfortunately concrete answers are impossible at this point but it’s probably a mix of all. It’s likely that producers will try to delicately thread the needle between increasing fees to vendors, increasing costs to consumers, and accepting a less attractive balance sheet for the year just to remain open and relevant this season and beyond.

What about food production and sales in the Covid and post-Covid era? Well it should be no surprise that masks for foodservice workers at music festivals will be around for a long time; certainly all of 2021 and for the foreseeable future. There will be great variation at brick and mortar restaurants throughout the country; at Flats Fix in Manhattan where AOC was a server before becoming a Congresswoman masks will be around for a long time, whereas at Lauren Boebert’s restaurant in Colorado you’re more likely to find servers sporting pistols than masks. While nationwide restaurants will have great variation of mask policy, producers of large music festivals, who often have national and international interests at stake, are more likely to adopt more aggressive mask policies than the local jurisdictions of any one event under their umbrella of operation. Thus, food and beverage operations and third party vendors contracted by large music festivals are likely to be required to wear masks for a long time.

A trend that pre-dates the pandemic but will only be accelerated as a result of it is the move to go cashless. The CDC announced on April 5th, 2021 that the principal mode on Covid transmission was exposure to infected respiratory droplets, but simultaneously acknowledged that it was still possible, though unlikely, for transmission to take place with contaminated surfaces. How this translates to food service and cash handling is almost a moot point for discussion. For one, even in non-pandemic times, contact surfaces at food service establishments should ALREADY have been routinely cleaned and sterilized. Second of all, in non-pandemic times anyone handling cash should NEVER have been handling food. Prior to Covid, if your cashier had touched cash and then handed you a slice of pizza on a plate and you saw their thumb come in contact with a melted string of cheese hanging off the plate, how would you respond? How would you expect a health inspector to respond if they witnessed that? The proper response for you would be to refuse the slice, ask for a refund and move on to another vendor you feel more comfortable with. The proper response for the health inspector would be to temporarily suspend the operation, work with the manager and operators of the business to take corrective action, and only allow them to reopen when the health agency was satisfied that all appropriate actions had been taken.

But as far as cash handling, how could that scenario have been proactively mitigated before there was a problem? Labor! A separate cashier would handle all POS transactions, including credit transaction and cash, and a separate employee with gloves would expedite the food to the customer. While some vendors would view this as a financial burden, other vendors who deal in high volume sales most likely were already using this system to reduce wait times and increase transactions. Bottom line however, is whether the world is in a pandemic or not, no foodservice workers should ever simultaneously be handling cash and food.

More likely than not however, producers of music festivals and concerts are likely to continue the trend of going cashless and simply eliminate cash at events altogether. Cash is a liability to not only health but also to losses. Whether the losses are attributable to theft, counterfeit bills, underreporting or other risks associated with cash handling, the allure of eliminating such risks will overwhelmingly support a move to cashless processing. The other benefit to going cashless is the well-documented increase to revenues by increasing customer spending. Customers are likely to spend more money when that money is tied to their credit card or phone than when limited to the amount of cash in their pockets. Thus, the trend that existed prior to Covid is likely to gain momentum moving forward.

An unfortunate, yet unavoidable change to food service operations at music festivals as a result of the pandemic will be the anti-environmental policies that are likely to be implemented. Say goodbye to bulk condiment dispensers and hello to individual portion packs of ketchup, mustard and more. Say goodbye to open container items that use less paper and hello to larger, sealed containers that use more resources and take up more landfill space. These changes are likely to come in the Covid and post-Covid era and are likely to remain for a very long time. Consumers and regulators will be the only driving force to put pressure on companies to develop more environmentally conscious, yet affordable packaging for single serve condiments and portion packs. Until and unless these packages are developed, we will be seeing an overwhelming amount of plastics devoted to PC packets of ketchup for our burgers and fries.

So much remains uncertain about the music festival and concert scene for 2021. While some producers have felt confident enough to promote ticket sales and major lineups as early as September, other producers have already cancelled their 2021 events, and yet others are still hanging on in between the two, instead saying things along the lines of “We’re hoping to make announcements soon, “ “We may hold the [enter festival name] in August, but we’ll let you know later.” Summarizing these different approaches, it’s clear that 2021 will not be business as usual for the live music industry. Food service will be a consideration given appropriate attention sometime down the road but will be a very tricky factor to navigate. Perhaps some events don’t offer food and beverage...but at what cost? Perhaps some events create “food zones.”…but how to balance these zones with overall attendance. And perhaps some events go on as if everything was normal…but what liabilities do producers and vendors have if a health emergency comes up and can be traced back to the event?

With so much liability and so much at stake, producers will need to carefully weigh the immediate health risks of opening in 2021 against the long-term impacts to their brand by opting to remain closed while competitor events may elect to let the show go on. With the clock ticking down to the summer, the window of opportunity to make these decisions is quickly shutting.


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