Herrington: Coronavirus uncertainty suggests Memphis in ‘Maybe’

By , Daily Memphian Updated: March 30, 2020 7:16 PM CT | Published: March 29, 2020 12:28 PM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

I’ve got some great Beale Street Music Festival memories. 

Recently, I remember Neil Young walking onto the festival stage, looking out over the Big Muddy and then leading his band through a titanic 35-minute rendition of his “Down By the River.” I remember Memphian Julien Baker stopping time early one Friday evening, belting out her musical prayer “Rejoice” at the edge of the stage. 

Beale Street Music Fest rescheduled for October

Further back, I remember a mischievous Randy Newman surveying the Sunday afternoon crowd, then sitting down at his piano to play his provocative “Rednecks,” unedited. I remember a blissfully cool Sunday night when a seemingly incoherent pairing – New York indie stalwarts Sonic Youth followed by Southern soul legend Mavis Staples – made beautiful music in succession. 

I was especially looking forward to seeing the alt-rock band Yeah Yeah Yeahs for the first time at this year’s edition. But despite Memphis in May announcing new fall dates on Friday afternoon, I doubt I’ll be making new Music Fest memories this year.

Beale Street Music Fest is perhaps the most densely packed throng of humanity to be found in Memphis each year, and I’m struggling with the idea of navigating that crowd amid an ongoing pandemic. 

Ongoing in October? Yes, in all likelihood.

Coronavirus has bent our experience of time. It’s been a little more than a week since Mayor Jim Strickland declared a state of civil emergency in Memphis. It feels like at least a month. Memphis in May has declared itself Memphis in October this year. October feels like a lifetime away. 

Amid a sharp economic downturn that’s meant economic devastation for too many, there’s been an urge to abandon social-distancing practices as soon as they’re implemented. The goal, lagging well behind the practice, is to “flatten the curve” in an attempt not to overwhelm the medical system.

Memphis Tourism to host virtual music festival to aid local musicians

But flattening the curve doesn’t stomp out the virus. We will be living with – and trying to manage – the virus for at least another year. Some have said that even with successful flattening in the coming weeks, the “curve” will be shaped more like a roller coaster track. Others have used the example of waves, with the hope that growing population immunity will make each successive wave less severe as we work toward an eventual vaccine. Others have likened our intermediate future to a game of public-health whack-a-mole, reacting to outbreaks at times and places we can’t predict. 

Doctors and public-health officials locally and nationally have suggested that as we reopen, cases could spike, and we’ll likely be navigating multiple periods of tightening and loosening society as we navigate our way through what is most likely a 12- to 18-month process.

At some point in the not-too-distant but not-too-immediate future, we will begin to reopen that which we’ve restricted. We’ll find a way to get kids back into school and people back into restaurants. To get people back to work. But the process will likely be gradual and fitful.

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And large public gatherings will be – or at least should be – the last and trickiest part of a return to some new kind of normal. 

Beale Street Music Festival is only the biggest of the potential large public gatherings Memphians will want to resume this year. There are somewhat smaller festivals, from Memphis in May/October’s barbecue contest to popular neighborhood gatherings like the Cooper-Young Festival. There are basketball and football games. 

What will fall be like? If coronavirus has a seasonal component – and we don’t know that it does – there’s a belief cases could fall in the summer and surge again in the fall. A report this weekend floated the idea of college football appearing in the summer and avoiding autumn for this reason. On local radio this week, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen suggested University of Memphis football games without fans in the stands. 

What will the NBA do? Professional leagues in Southeast Asia, where the virus hit first, have struggled to resume operations. Ideas for bringing back the NBA have included scenarios without fans, with minimal travel and potentially not even in arenas. 

If getting 17,000 or 35,000 people back into arenas and stadiums is a problem to solve, what about that many or more – in a far less orderly setting – sweating together on a riverfront whose only running water is the river? 

It bears noting that the Beale Street Music Festival is not an outlier. California’s larger Coachella Music Festival also rescheduled to October. There seems to be a widespread hope in the entertainment sector that life will be normal by fall. These things have to be planned months ahead. You forge ahead on that hope or you don’t. 

No one can say for sure, but it’s hard now to see in the science that level of normal that soon. And mass public festivals don’t feel like a good idea until we’re truly in the clear. 

Consider New Orleans and Austin. These two cities, not that far apart, have had different coronavirus experiences. 

In New Orleans, with a metro population of about 1.3 million, Orleans and Jefferson parishes have had more than 2,000 confirmed cases, with Orleans Parish suffering the highest coronavirus death rate of any county in the U.S. so far. 

In Austin, with a metro population of 2.2 million, Travis and Williamson counties have combined for fewer than 200 confirmed cases as of this writing. 

What’s the difference? One explanation: Medical officials suspect that Mardi Gras in New Orleans, which ended in late February, acted as an accelerant. In Austin, the annual South by Southwest Festival, scheduled for mid-March, was canceled, one of the earliest tipping points in public consciousness about the virus. 

If a new wave of cases comes in the fall – or even if we’re then playing “whack-a-mole” against smaller outbreaks around the country – are we going to be comfortable with these kinds of mass public events? Not just in Memphis, but anywhere in the country? 

On Friday, announcing its new October dates, Memphis in May declared that “the show MUST go on.” I hope that’s not only possible, but will feel responsible come October. 

It’s been a while since I’ve worn an editor’s hat. But my urge was to take a red pen to that “MUST.” I’d say that “may” remains an operative word, all lower-case this time. 


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