The comedy industry must realize that Covid is not over yet
This article was originally published on Humorism, a newsletter on work, inequality and extremism in comedy. Subscribe here to get messages like this delivered to your inbox.
I’m concerned that a Covid outbreak is imminent on the LA comedy scene, if it isn’t already underway. Here is what I know.
On Tuesday and Wednesday Last week, the Comedy Store canceled its shows, announcing it needed to train staff on updated safety procedures to deal with the Delta variant. Among others, those new procedures require all customers to provide proof of vaccination, purchase tickets in advance and wear a mask when not at their table and when interacting with staff. (Previously, proof of vaccination was only required in the belly room; other rooms required proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test.) Fairly good procedures, all things considered.
On Tuesday I received advice from a store close to me who told me that the official reason for the club closing was only half the story. The other half was that Jeff Ross had Covid-19 and couldn’t host Roast Battle that night. For unclear reasons, neither Ross nor the store had announced the diagnosis, although he is a familiar face at the club and his diagnosis would likely be useful information for customers, employees and the comics who might have been. approach him. My inquiries to both Ross and the store reps went unanswered so there was little I could do with the tip.
Ross posted an image in his Instagram Story on Wednesday of a get well card and a sandwich he received from Gilbert and Dara Gottfried (pastrami, it probably looks like Langers or Canter’s, but I’m not a journalist specializing in sandwiches). He captioned it, “The best part of covid!” Well, there we are. I called the store again to ask if he made a contact tracing effort or even just an internal announcement on the news. The employee who picked up the phone was unaware of any such action; e-mails to the store’s management and publicist again went unanswered.
Ross confirmed his diagnosis in an interview on the Audacy (?) Podcast app on Friday. More importantly, he confirmed what appears to be a cluster of cases:
Ross said he had been home since last Friday and found out after his friends started to get sick. “It’s one of those things where all my friends got it and I got tested just to be safe,” Ross says. “The second I got the positive, like three hours later, my body just went ‘oh man.’ All the symptoms came on at the same time.
I want to be very clear that I’m not interested in shaming Jeff Ross for catching Covid. For me, what’s worrying here is the “all my friends got it” part. Jeff Ross is a comedian, comedians friend and town man. It goes without saying that some of these friends, if not all, are actors; it stands to reason that they probably went through comedic spaces in the days and weeks leading up to their diagnosis. In this context, the security overhaul of the Comedy Store looks less like a response to a Covid infection and more like a response to a wave of infections, at least one of which breakthrough (Ross was vaccinated in April). It’s a totally rational response that any other comedy venue should emulate; if governments do not issue vaccination warrants, private companies must do so, especially those that sell the laughter respiratory product. What is less rational is the Store’s silence on important news for anyone who has acted or seen comedy in the past few months: the current way of doing things is spreading Covid.
As usual, I tried to determine who else might have been exposed. Last Friday was July 23. The CDC says people with Covid-19 can spread it for up to 48 hours before they start to experience symptoms. Going back two days in time, we find Ross listed in the Comedy Store’s main room lineup for July 21. It is possible that he gave up; the store wouldn’t tell me anyway. He was also on the July 22 lineup for SuperNova, an outdoor show in Hollywood, but producer Mark Serritella told me Ross had given up.
I understand why theater operators may not want to publicly discuss the possibility of comedy spreading Covid. I not only believe that transparency is squarely in their best interests, but that it is their duty to collectively establish a timeline of possible exposures whenever a comedian catches Covid. Live comedy is a gigantic decentralized social club in the workplace that thousands of people walk through every week. A lot of test subjects are involved in this ongoing experiment to figure out how to get it to work safely again. Not all of these people are vaccinated, and not all of them can afford to stay home for two weeks. Anyone who may have been exposed to Covid in a comedy room deserves to know, and everyone deserves to know exactly what risk they are taking when they see a live comedy. When we called, Serritella was angry that everything was stopping again because of vaccination problems; I certainly feel the same. This perspective makes it all the more important to identify and resolve the weak points in the way live comedy works today. It seems obvious that every actor in activity owes his audience to be transparent on these issues. Yet the greatest responsibility lies with the sites and the producers (and the government, but this ship sailed a long time ago). I may not be a fan of Jeff Ross, but I don’t think it is the patient’s responsibility to inform anyone who potentially breathes the same air as him.
It should be emphasized that revolutionary cases are extremely rare and that vaccines systematically prevent serious infections. It should also be emphasized that these are not excuses for complacency. Vaccinated people can transmit Covid, Delta variant is up to four times more contagious than previous strains, breakthrough infections can cause long-term debilitating symptoms, and “six feet from an unvaccinated person is no longer protection,” according to an infectious disease expert interviewed in The Atlantic over the weekend. If Ross has indeed been at home for the 48 hour period in which he may have been pre-symptomatic but contagious, it is a welcome cold comfort. This leaves us to contemplate the two-week period in which he (and over 12 of his friends) caught the damn thing, a period of roasted battles and headlining shows and popups with Dave Chappelle. and concerts as far away as Texas. The Comedy Store appears to have looked at this time period and concluded that comedy may well have spread some Covid. It’s a low bar, sure, but the store deserves credit for being one of the most cautious clubs in the pandemic. I doubt he has changed course slightly.
Unless indoor shows are suspended altogether, every performance venue should follow the store’s lead and require all customers to show proof of vaccination. They should also use the infusions of money they just received from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program to provide employees with regular Covid testing and paid sick leave. Clubs should also do everything in their power to encourage vaccination. By editing this article, I see that the Store Just announced it will give two free tickets to anyone fully vaccinated this month, another great initiative. Where possible, sites should go further by working with local health departments to organize humorous outdoor pop-ups with free shows, free food, and mobile vaccination clinics.
Comedians have enormous power to influence the hearts and minds of their audiences. During this pandemic, many have used this power to sow apathy towards the virus and misinformation about vaccines. Some have actively, knowingly endangered their audiences. I understand that we are all ready for this to end, but it is not. The longer we pretend it is, the harder and harder we will have to make sacrifices. Fortunately, the reverse is also true: the more we act now, the less we will have to sacrifice later. It’s time for the comedy industry to stop reacting to bad news and start using its powers proactively to beat this thing.
Seth Simons is the author of Humorism, a newsletter on work, inequality and extremism in the comedy industry. He’s on Twitter @sasimons. To subscribe to Humorism to receive items like this in your inbox.