The band’s statement arrived Wednesday, July 28th, just hours before playing their first show since February 2020 — practically a lifetime for a band that tours regularly each year. That first show, however, also happens to be at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Arkansas, a state that’s been among the hardest hit by the latest coronavirus surge.
“[T]he best thing you can possibly do before coming to a show is to GET VACCINATED!” Phish wrote on their website. “Furthermore, as social distancing is not possible inside the venues, we highly recommend wearing a mask at these outdoor shows when closer than six feet to others, regardless of whether or not you’re vaccinated. Being vaccinated AND wearing a mask at these shows is the best way you can show love and respect for our incredible community.”
Phish also noted that every show they play on their upcoming tour will have free masks available, but encouraged fans to bring their own. They also urged fans who are experiencing symptoms, have tested positive, or been exposed to someone who’s tested positive for Covid-19 in the last 14 days to not attend the shows.
“Thanks for keeping these precautions in mind — we’re all in this together,” Phish said. “It takes each one of us to make sure that we can all continue to see live music safely.”
The statement arrived as many among the Phish fan community — particularly those devoted to the live experience — grappled with just how comfortable they were going to big concerts as Covid-19 cases continue to rise in some states and the Delta variant spreads.
The band announced their summer and fall tours back in May, and Jay Kocyla, who runs the popular Phish Facebook page, Phish Tour 2014, tells Rolling Stone that the news was greeted with excitement. “These people went without a tour for a whole year, so there was a ton of excitement on the front end that they were even going to be able to pull some shows off,” he says. But in the last month, he adds, there’s definitely been a shift: “As cases started to tick up, there was definitely more concern than excitement.”
On Phish Tour 2014, the Phish subreddit, Twitter, and other online communities, expressions of concern have morphed into intensely polarized and vicious debates; not even a fan group steeped in kind vibes is immune from the ravages of internet discourse. A post on /r/Phish suggesting Phish might be wise to cancel their show in Arkansas — where cases are spiking and vaccination rates remain low — and that fans who are attending ought to wear masks and be safe (especially if they were following the band from state to state), sparked a contentious debate. Moderators received multiple reports flagging the post as “political” (those were ultimately rejected). David Steinberg, who runs Phish Stats, shared similar thoughts on his social media pages and tells Rolling Stone he ended up having to ban someone from his Facebook group — for just the second time ever — due to a mix of threats of violence and Nazi symbolism.
“I’m seeing a lot of the same sort of anger and frustration and fighting that we were seeing in the run-up to the election with this as well,” Adam Schneider, one of the /r/Phish mods says. “Some people are like, ‘You’re stupid, chill out, you can’t live your life on eggshells, blah, blah, blah.’ And then the other half are like, ‘Dude, get vaccinated.’”
Prior to their statement today, Phish had previously encouraged fans to get vaccinated when they announced their summer and fall tours, and again on social media last week. But none of the shows will require proof-of-vaccine to enter, as the possibilities of vax passports were quickly raised and then buried. Brando Rich, the founder and CEO of the social media/ticket re-sale platform Cash or Trade, which helps fans pass along tickets at face value, notes that’s less a Phish-specific decision than a concert industry one.
“The ticket giants could have decided to do digital passports, and I think a lot of us thought that was going to become commonplace,” he says. “But I think we saw the ticket giants get very wary of creating not only friction to the purchase and show-going but also with this… I mean, let’s be real here — this virus has been so politicized and that creates a lot of tension. And I think they wanted to stand clear from it. They could have made those choices, but they didn’t.”
One question underlying these conversations was whether or not concerned fans would start unloading their tickets en masse. For his part, Schneider, who is vaccinated, decided back when the tour was announced that he was going to sit this year out. “At least in my community, a good portion of people are like, ‘I’m not doing this,’” he says. “I’ve been seeing Phish for 28 years, I can wait another year.”
But there are indicators that Covid-19 concerns aren’t prompting massive numbers of Phish fans to unload their tickets. One big, large, honking caveat that a Reddit poll is not — we repeat not — scientific, a recent /r/Phish poll with over 2,000 votes had 1,500 people say they were vaccinated and going to a show; 529 say they were vaccinated but not going; 156 saying they’re not vaccinated but going; and 45 saying they’re not vaccinated and not going. More reliable may be Rich’s observations about the recent activity on Cash or Trade.
Rich says Cash or Trade is seeing about double the total volume it had back in December 2019, right before the pandemic. He adds that there’s always been “more fluidity” in the ticket market for Phish’s summer tours compared to their fall and holiday runs, and the most intense activity always happens right before the tour starts, and during it. And while some folks are definitely offloading tickets because of Covid, Rich says, “I wouldn’t say that’s the impetus for all of this volume. We’re having so many transactions because people want those tickets. As much as some people are selling them, a bunch of people are buying them, too.”
Rich, Steinberg and Kocyla are among the fans who are vaccinated and plan to see Phish this year, and all three recognize the implicit risk. In essence, the conversations and debates raging in the Phish community are the same ones that most vaccinated people will have as they decide how comfortable they are seeing concerts, dining indoors, going to the movies, or doing any of the other things humans love to do but haven’t been able to for the past year-and-a-half.
But because of the nature of the pandemic at this moment, with just 60 percent of the U.S. adults over 18 vaccinated as of publication, taking these risks now will invariably put future events, like this fall’s slate of tours and festivals, at further risk. Even the biggest artists in the world with the means to gin up all kinds of protections are susceptible to setbacks — earlier this month the Foo Fighters postponed a gig after someone on their team caught Covid.
“I didn’t leave my house for basically a year and now I am going to the Gorge [in Washington], to Tahoe [in California], and to Dick’s [in Colorado],” says Steinberg. “I’m not flying, I’m driving, and I’m making some changes that way, but I still think it is important for us to go and have fun if we can, and if the danger seems to be low enough in our own personal beliefs. Just think about it ahead of time, because you don’t want to get into a situation where you realize you’re not comfortable at set break.”
Kocyla adds, “I’ve done what I can to make myself safe, and again, it’s a hive mind mentality, but I’m hoping that the majority of the people around me have made that same choice. I think most people are probably vaccinated, and I just hope the minority is a small enough number that it doesn’t affect us.”
But, he notes later, “I think [Phish] are kind of rolling the dice a little bit. There is obviously going to be some transmission based on this. And honestly, any touring band right now, you’re getting people back together again, it’s going to happen.”