Here's a coronavirus-appropriate simile for you: Outdoor music festivals are like petri dishes. You take an isolated piece of real estate, drop in a cross section of life's rich pageant, add a jaw-dropping variety of drugs, and sit back and watch it all bloom into an invigorating, life-affirming experience. Grimy, but life-affirming nonetheless.
But in the instance of last weekend's Okeechobee Music & Arts Festival — along with its accompanying cast of characters from around the world who gathered en masse to swap hugs, drugs, cigarettes, and bodily fluids — the specter of an invisible deadly pathogen floated over the proceedings like sarin gas.
According to a report by WPTV, this year’s festival attracted about 40,000 attendees, prompting Okeechobee locals to worry that some visitors might be packing a lungful of COVID-19 along with their mind-altering substances of choice.
I was aware of those concerns, and I'm a savvy enough media consumer/germaphobe to have realized that half a mini-bottle of hand sanitizer and a package of antibacterial wipes weren't going to cut it. But I also wanted to see Derrick May and Lil Louis on the decks. And I was determined to consummate my eight-year quest to see Haim perform live. When the going gets weird, the weird get going. Plus, as a compulsive hand-washer, I was greatly relieved by the news that the best way to avoid coronavirus is to scrub my hands for 20 seconds.
Still, a few hours into our northbound drive to the festival grounds, I persuaded my photographer/wingman to make an emergency Purell stop. Alas, we were soon to learn that Walmart's supply of hygienic hand products had run dry.
It didn’t ease my growing anxiety that we were joined in the checkout line by an overweight elderly veteran in a full-fledged gas mask. (Curiously, his wife was equipped with no protective garb.)
“Relax — I have hand sanitizer,” my photographer reassured me, clearly perceiving the fount of dread bubbling up within me. I took a few deep breaths, and we drove on.
But the closer we got to Okeechobee, the more my coronavirus panic grew. Stepping out of the relative safety of my car and into the unknown of the night felt unnerving. As I set off to pick up my press credentials at Okeechobee’s offsite box office, I felt as if I was walking across what would eventually become a battlefield. Odd sounds beset me from every direction; car headlights drifted in and out of view beneath buzzing spotlights, occasionally illuminating characters who were getting into some sort of prefestival mischief.
And I hadn't even reached the concert grounds.
When I signed in at the media tent, an attendant handed over my credential and I made a beeline for the bathroom to scrub my hands.
My photographer and I set up camp, and for a few minutes I lost myself in the allure that precedes events like these. Then I asked him for that bottle of hand sanitizer he had promised.
Despite the prevalence of hand-sanitizing stations and signs encouraging guests to wash frequently, I seemed to be alone with my incipient germ panic. Hands were held, hugs were reciprocated, and gratuitous mutual touching continued as though a lethal and largely mysterious virus hadn’t just made landfall.
Around daybreak on Friday, I almost certainly placed my hand in human urine on a tree in the Jungle 51 area. But having witnessed Lil Louis' set and watched him shred his audience apart with the likes of Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” and “Life Is Something Special” by the NYC Peech Boys, I kept calm and sanitized on.
The rest of the weekend did not go so smoothly. Each visit to the media tent for a Wi-Fi fix brought news from the outside: more confirmed cases, more fatalities. Even worse were the occasional Okeechobee rumors, like the one that had men in hazmat suits driving a golf cart holding a wook caught in a coughing fit.
My hand sanitizer was running low. I had washed my hands so much my knuckles were raw, which was almost (but not quite) as discomforting as my inner dread. The VIP area was well stocked with alcohol wipes, which I routinely pocketed. My companions told me my attire — sweatshirt and sweatpants — made me look like a drug dealer, but the only things I was carrying were dime bags of cleanliness.
On Saturday, a fellow music journalist told me he had been asking attendees to share their thoughts about coronavirus and their perceived vulnerability to the plague. He said by and large they didn’t care. It was an observation corroborated by my own anecdotal experience — all weekend, everyone I met immediately went in for the handshake and the hug, sending me scurrying for the nearest source of sanitation. When my roommate arrived at the festival and told me she had been greeting people with elbow knocks and foot taps, it felt like a revelation.
The final day, the gravity of the situation set in. The tally of positive tests and fatalities had risen as the level of precious liquid in my remaining Purell bottle fell. I became acutely aware of how each and every interaction might end with my contracting COVIID-19. I began holding my breath while walking through large crowds to avoid inhaling anything noxious, and I fretted every time I handed over my credit card for a financial transaction. It's deeply unsettling to walk among hordes of goofily attired festivalgoers while in a state of abject paranoia, convinced that any one of them might be the means of your demise and you won’t even know it.
Then again, in some particularly dumb cases, they make it patently obvious.
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“Do you want the rest of my smoothie?” one wook inquired in the midst of Maya Jane Coles’ fest-closing set. “It’s delicious, but I can’t finish it.” I silently walked past him without exhaling. I would later decline to hit a joint en route to the men’s room.
Thus far, there haven’t been any reports of new coronavirus cases or victims tied to Okeechobee.
Looking back, the festival might have been the perfect place for me to grapple with my coronavirus demons. Is there anything more attuned to life in 2020 than choosing to shut up and enjoy the entertainment while tragedy — be it the rising tide of fascism, prejudice, climate change, or coronavirus — lurks around the corner?
Either way, I learned a valuable lesson about staving off death through incessant hand-washing: If I had it to do over again, I'd have brought moisturizer.