First it was Covid. Now it’s monkeypox. Organizers of a free concert at an upcoming LGBTQ festival known as Southern Decadence in New Orleans have canceled the concert due to the threat of monkeypox.
The larger six-day festival from September 1 to 5 will continue as planned since 1973, with the exception of hurricanes and the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. The popular event usually draws around 250,000 people. But the organizers of the concert felt that with the increase in cases of monkeypox, especially among gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary and men who have sex with men, it was not worth the risk.
Monkeypox is spread through close skin-to-skin contact. Although not a sexually transmitted disease, the majority of cases in this particular US outbreak have been linked to skin-to-skin sexual contact, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The concert takes place outdoors, but famous performers such as Deborah Cox, Jennifer Holliday and The Weather Girls draw large crowds.
It’s what organizer Chuck Robinson described as “hot, sweaty, people gathered outside 21 blocks down, shirtless people. They dance shoulder to shoulder like they should [to] celebrate the lifestyle through music and concerts, that’s great but dangerous for monkeypox,” Robinson told CNN.
Festival organizers said they are working closely with the Louisiana Department of Health. The New Orleans Department of Health has set up temporary vaccination clinics near nightclubs and other locations.
As of Thursday, 127 cases of monkeypox have been reported in Louisiana.
Despite the rise in cases, the vast majority of LGBTQ events this summer continued as usual.
According to the company’s website, an outing party called the Algeria Sunrise Summer Edition was canceled in July in New York City due to the threat of monkeypox.
Anyone can get monkeypox, but the latest U.S. outbreak has mostly been concentrated among gay, bisexual, transgender non-binary men and men who have sex with men. It can be spread through close contact and possibly spread through contaminated clothing and bedding.
When it comes to making the decision to attend major events, Dr. David Hamer, acting director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Disease Policy and Research at Boston University, said it’s important to be mindful of how this outbreak is spreading.
“Based on what I see, 95 to 98% of cases occur in close sexual contact, skin to skin, and not in public places,” Hamer said.
“I think the risk is much lower (in concert),” Hamer said.
But it is not “risk free” to attend such an event. Hamer points to a study by researchers at Stanford University that focuses on a British man who said he noticed his first monkeypox lesion two weeks after attending “a large, crowded outdoor event where he had close contact with other people, including close dancing for several hours,” the researchers say. The researchers wrote that his main risk factor was “close non-sexual contact with numerous unknown people at a crowded outdoor event.” He was dressed for the event.
“If this is to be believed, I think the organizers will need to take this into account when planning,” Hamer said.
Hamer thinks organizers may want to communicate with attendees ahead of time and encourage anyone who has had any unusual lesions or contact with someone who has had monkeypox to stay home or at least get tested and evaluated first to make sure they are not contagious and are going to infect their friends.
“But if people are fully clothed and so on, I don’t think there is any real significant risk,” he said.
Dr. Amesh A. Adalya, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said given the way monkeypox spreads, “most concerts are probably not a problem.” A special event where people are partially clothed and in contact with each other is not a “non-zero risk”.
“In general, it is important to distinguish between all the ways in which monkeypox is spread and what causes cases,” Adalya said. “This is clearly a sex-related outbreak in the United States.”
“However, you can see transmission outside of sexual contact. I think canceling it or not canceling it is a separate conversation, but do you know if there will be some non-zero risk of monkeypox? Yes, that would be the case if people were shirtless and rubbing against each other at the event.”
According to him, the decisions to go or not, to hold an event or not, actually depend more on people’s tolerance for risk than on anything else.
“There is no formula to say that this event should be canceled because of XY and Z. It’s more about what the risk of spreading monkeypox is at such an event,” he said.
He added that the country has learned a lot from how the Covid-19 pandemic has been handled.
“Risk reduction works much better than event cancellations and abstinence-only approaches,” Adalya said. “I think it’s more about being aware of the risks and using tools like having tests available or having enough vaccines, it could be places to get vaccinated. But I think it’s important to just know that people know something about the risk.”
In June, during Pride Month, the World Health Organization said monkeypox was not a reason to cancel mass gatherings. On the contrary, these events are an excellent opportunity to convey information about monkeypox and remedies to the public.
On Thursday, the Biden administration said it was launching a program to provide vaccines at major LGBT events.
One such event is Black Pride Weekend in Atlanta. Mostly an outdoor event held over the Labor Day weekend, it usually draws over 100,000 people.
The organizers met with the local health department to discuss the best strategy for dealing with monkeypox and Covid-19 to keep people safe.
The festival will offer testing and vaccines for monkeypox and Covid-19 at the event itself, and it is working with the Fulton County Department of Health to offer monkeypox vaccines even before the festival.
“We believe in the science of things, not just Instagram rumors, scare tactics and clickbait,” said Melissa Scott, Traxx Girls founder and festival organizer. Scott said they have an advantage with the festival as they have a large open space where people can spread out as much as they want, depending on how close they would like to be with others.
“You can even be a quarter of a mile away and be aware of what’s happening on our big screens,” Scott said.
Scott said the event is a much-needed holiday weekend, especially after so many people have had to quarantine during the pandemic. Such activities are important for everyone’s mental health.
“It is important for us to come together. People need to communicate. We talk too much on the phones as it is,” Scott said. “It’s very important to have some face-to-face contact again. It’s so important to celebrate.”