The Future of the Reopen U.S. Economy Is an Arts and Yoga Retreat in the Middle of a Pandemic

As far as we can tell, the three-day arts and EDM camping retreat “In My Elements” proceeded as planned this weekend. Ticket buyers were promised a dreamy open-air tea ceremony, a hidden “Air Stage,” yoga in the “wellnest,” a sunrise over a lake — and also, two rounds of covid-19 tests and a team of paramedics. The $US595 ($856)-per-head event in Northeastern Pennsylvania pitched a super-safe, post-reopening protocol that, as we learned, might be wishful thinking, as the U.S. infection rate tops 3.3 million cases of covid-19 and 135,200 deaths. The endeavour previews a picture of the near future — of private companies enriched through premature reopenings, and returns to summer camps and offices, and even “arenas.”

The In My Elements retreat (not to be confused with the related upcoming Elements festival headlined by Diplo, slotted for September) advertised an exhausting covid-19 prevention strategy, with a minimum of two tests. Three days before the event, ticket buyers would either drive to or be delivered mandatory covid-19 tests (incorporated in the ticket price at $US147 ($212)) with results produced within 24-48 hours. Upon arrival, guests were to be greeted with a nasal swab and wait 30 minutes for results, which determined whether they proceed to the grounds or they and the people in their car are sent home. Everybody was promised their own cabin and a private bathroom. If it rained, guests would gather in indoor structures at 50 per cent capacity. Stages were said to be plein-aire, with six-foot distance markers on the dance floor. Medical staff were said to be on round-the-clock standby, and anyone showing symptoms could take another test.

It sounds safe, but the on-the-spot solution might be a false sense of security. We now know that presymptomatic people can spread covid-19 before their symptoms start, so if the attendees happened to contract the virus after the first test, before arriving at the event, they would not feel motivated to take another test. Additionally, rapid testing, in general, has been shown to be especially inaccurate compared to other tests, and the tests vary greatly in accuracy from manufacturer to manufacturer. In My Elements uses tests with Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA: Mako Medical TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Assay first, then Sofia 2 SARS Antigen FIA by Quidel. Specifically with the second, rapid, on-site Quidel test, the test’s positive results, according to an FDA news release, “are highly accurate, but there is a higher chance of false negatives, so negative results do not rule out infection.”

Despite this, the flyer told guests that masks were only “encouraged”; visitors would make their own travel arrangements. While the CDC was unable to comment on this particular event by the time of publication, guidelines suggest that this might fall somewhere between the “high risk” event category — spaced six feet apart — and “highest risk” — large in-person gathering hosting participants who’ve travelled from outside the local area. (Attendance, capping out at 250 people including staff, represents the maximum number of people allowed to gather in Pennsylvania, which is currently in its third and final “green” phase before fully reopening. Final attendance is unclear from the scant social media evidence posted by Elements — a single photo of the purple head of a three-eyed wooden elk head — but as of Friday, it was “underway.”)

In My Elements could have been a scold-worthy episode, like those quarantine group getaways advertised, publicly shamed, and cancelled, way back when we were still in denial. But casual lurking reveals that the bohemian outing for a tight-knit community might be a canary for a coming red-blooded American pandemic business that will plow ahead with bullish determinism, life-threatening virus be damned. It’s enabled by (possibly unwittingly) a plexus of a covid-19 test catering service and labs whose CEOs have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican politicians, some of whom are pushing for early reopening. Call it the reopening industrial complex, maybe.

Brett Herman, co-founder of BangOn!, the New York City-based event production company behind In My Elements, told Billboard that this event is “not a money-making endeavour” but rather a test to “find a path” for future events. In that vein, Elements has spun off into a newly-formed “consulting and production service company,” Tested Contained Retreats, which, in a robin egg blue brochure, is marketing covid-19 safety measures for small events and conferences. The literature describes the aforementioned two-part testing, with tests designed for “99.8% accuracy” (again, a specious claim) and obliges guests to pledge that they do not live with and will avoid people at higher risk for serious illness 14 days prior to and after the event.

If Elements is tiptoeing around a burgeoning crowd of thrill-seekers, though, a newly-formed company performing the tests, Rapid Reliable Testing, is ploughing headlong with a streamlined testing enterprise and an aqua logo strongly resembling a parental advisory label. A lucent website for Rapid Reliable Testing advertises the services of medical technicians, who will arrive at your arena or business to conduct temperature checks and test for covid-19, except the copy is unencumbered with Elements’ rules and more insistent about getting our asses out the door.

“The Show Must Go On,” reads the confident bold type, over a banner image of hundreds of shoulder-to-shoulder arms waving before a concert stage, on Rapid Reliable Testing’s website. “Summer Is in Session,” declares the header over a placid lake with a peak of canoe. “Go Back to Work with Confidence,” it says. Next to a photo of a packed baseball stadium, it promises that it’ll set up testing “at your arenas” (emphasis theirs). Staff, who will be tested before events at their homes, may get Livestrong-reminiscent aqua bracelets reading “Antibody positive,” even though covid-19 antibodies can be found on still-infected people and should not be used for diagnosis. Rapid Reliable Testing claims on the site to have tested 45,000 people for covid-19 and antibodies and is currently testing 10,000 people a week.

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But what about the pre-event testing and the promises of self-isolation? The “camp” section lays out an Elements plan with pre-camp and arrival testing, but the “events” section lays out something more like a condom-optional orgy: “Individuals who have an elevated temperature will not be admitted to the event and will be offered the option to take an on-the-spot COVID-19 test,” they write. “Results will be shared with them within 48 hours.”

We now know that temperature checks will not, under any circumstances, safeguard hoards of people from breathing a deadly virus into each other’s airways. According to a study cited by the CDC, only 44% of over 1,000 hospitalized covid-19 positive patients had a fever when admitted to the hospital. Forty-four per cent is likely exceedingly higher than the actual percentage of covid-19 cases a temperature check would weed out, since those were people who went to the hospital; Reuters reported that 60 per cent of the covid-19 positive crew aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt showed no symptoms at all.

Of course, the for-profit testing model only pays off if states reopen while there’s substantial risk that people will get sick while freely attending large events, i.e., a politician decides to allow crowded events long before the pandemic has ended.

Incidentally, CEOs of two of Rapid Reliable Testing’s three partner labs — Mako Medical, BioReference Laboratories, and BioDiagnostic Laboratories — have donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Republican Party and Republican lawmakers, some of whom have voiced strong support for reopening against all logic. Phillip Frost, the CEO of the pharmaceutical biomedical conglomerate Opko, which owns BioReference Laboratories, and his wife have personally donated roughly $US700,000 ($1,007,160) to Republican politics over the past decade, primarily to Super PACs and the RNC, as well as Republican lawmakers in Florida (Opko’s home state) including Rick Scott, who staunchly supported Florida’s reopening despite record-breaking cases. (Gizmodo has reached out to Opko for comment and will update the post if they respond.)

A February exposé by The News&Observer implicated Mako Medical CEO Chad Price in a campaign finance scandal. According to the paper, Price received millions in state and local kickbacks in North Carolina and has boasted about helping Republican politicians get elected. Over the past few years, Price has donated thousands to Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, an Obamacare opponent who was also calling for reopening by early June, North Carolina Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, who announced plans to sue Democratic Governor Roy Cooper for pandemic safety-related executive orders (Price also gave to Cooper), as well as South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster, who reopened the state in April and is now governing a hotspot. (Gizmodo has reached out to Mako Medical for comment and will update the post if they respond.)

The furthest logical extent of pandemic profiteering is probably yet to come, and it’s not a small gathering in the woods.

Elements reduces risk, technically; Elements supplies risk and then reduces it. We know — because we’ve been told after months of isolation — that in a pandemic, risk isn’t a personal choice. The risks of these gatherings are starting to resemble drunk driving: there is a possibility that nothing bad happens for any one event, but risk accumulates. Do it enough times, and someone will eventually get hurt. Is doing exorbitantly expensive yoga in the woods worth accepting the chance of human sacrifice? Nobody wants to say “yes,” but nobody wants a global pandemic.