This Isn't Over Yet

A raft of Delta variant cases in the LA comedy scene should be a call to action, not reaction.

This Isn't Over Yet

I fear a Covid outbreak may be imminent in the Los Angeles comedy scene, if one is not already underway. Here's what I know.

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week the Comedy Store canceled its shows, announcing that it had to train staff on updated safety procedures to deal with the Delta variant. Among other things, those new procedures require all patrons to provide proof of vaccination, buy tickets in advance, and wear a mask whenever 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.) Pretty good procedures, all things considered.

On Tuesday I received a tip from someone close to the Store who told me the club's official reason for 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 news, even though he's a familiar face at the club and his diagnosis would presumably be useful information for patrons, employees, and comics who may have come near him. Alas, my inquiries both to Ross's representatives and the Store's went unanswered, so there was little I could do with the tip.

On Wednesday, Ross posted an image in his Instagram story of a get-well-soon card and sandwich sent by Gilbert and Dara Gottfried (pastrami, looks like; I'd guess Langer's or Canter's, but I'm not a sandwich journalist). He captioned it, "Best part of covid !" Well, there we go. I called the Store again, asking if it made any sort of contact tracing effort or even just an internal announcement about the news. The employee who picked up the phone wasn't aware of any such measures; emails to the Store's management and publicist again went unanswered.

On Friday, Ross confirmed his diagnosis in an interview on the podcasting app Audacy (?). More importantly, he confirmed what appears to be a cluster of cases:

Ross said he’s been at home since last Friday and found out after his friends started to get sick. “It’s one of those things where all my friends were getting it and I got tested just to be careful,” Ross says. “The second I got the positive, like three hours later, my body just went ‘oh man.’ All the symptoms came at once.”

I want to be very clear that I'm not interested in shaming Jeff Ross for getting Covid. To me what's concerning here is the "all my friends were getting it" part. Jeff Ross is a comedian, a friend of comedians, and a man about town. It stands to reason that some if not all of these friends are comedians; it stands to reason that they likely moved through comedy spaces in the days and weeks leading up to their diagnoses. In this context, the Comedy Store's safety overhaul looks less like a response to one Covid infection than a response to a spate of infections, at least one of them breakthrough (Ross was vaccinated in April). This is a totally rational response every other comedy venue should replicate; if governments won't issue vaccine mandates, private businesses must, especially ones that sell the respiratory product of laughter. What's less rational is the Store's silence on a piece of news important to anyone who's performed or seen comedy in the last several months: The current way of doing things spread Covid.

As is my wont, I attempted to figure out who else may have been exposed. "Last Friday" was July 23rd. The CDC advises that people with Covid-19 may be able to spread it for up to 48 hours before they start experiencing symptoms. Winding the clock back two days, we find Ross listed on the Comedy Store's Main Room lineup for July 21st. It's possible he dropped out; the Store wouldn't tell me either way. He was also listed on the July 22nd lineup for SuperNova, an outdoor show in Hollywood, but producer Mark Serritella told me Ross dropped out. (He told me this toward the end of a rather combative phone call in which he initially said he didn't know if Ross showed up, berated me for attacking Ross and SuperNova, said everyone is going to get the virus sooner or later, and threatened to sue me if I write anything negative about his show. He later apologized for losing his temper, which he said was out of defensiveness toward the comics he's trying to provide a fair living, and now we have an amicable relationship. This happens sometimes.)

I understand why venue operators may not want to publicly discuss the possibility that comedy spreads Covid. I believe not only that transparency is squarely in their interests, but that it's their duty to collectively establish a timeline of possible exposures whenever any comedian gets Covid. Live comedy is one giant decentralized workplace-slash-social-club that thousands of people pour through every week. A great many test subjects are involved in this ongoing experiment to figure out how to make it function safely again. Not all of those subjects are vaccinated, not all of them can afford to stay home for two weeks. Everyone who might have been exposed to Covid at a comedy venue deserves to know, and everyone deserves to know exactly what risk they're taking when they see live comedy. During our call, Serritella was angry at the prospect of everything shutting down again because of vaccination problems; I certainly feel the same way. This prospect makes it all the more important to identify and resolve weak spots in the way live comedy currently operates. It seems self-evident that every working performer owes it to their audience to be transparent about these matters. Still, the greater onus is on venues and producers (and the government, but that ship sailed long ago). I may not be a fan of Jeff Ross, but I don't think it's the sick guy's responsibility to inform every person who potentially breathed the same air as him.

A “mild” case of Covid completely destroyed my life. To this day, I have not been hospitalized. Hearing media describe breakthrough cases as “mild” is HIGHLY OFFENSIVE. What part of “LongCovid is disabling” don’t people understand? How can we just allow everyone to get infected?August 1, 2021

It's worth emphasizing that breakthrough cases are exceedingly rare and that vaccines consistently prevent severe infections. It's also worth emphasizing that these are no excuses for complacency. Vaccinated people can transmit Covid, the Delta variant is up to four times as contagious as previous strains, breakthrough infections can cause debilitating long-term symptoms, and "six feet from an unvaccinated person is not protection anymore," according to an infectious diseases expert interviewed in The Atlantic this weekend. If Ross indeed stayed home during the 48-hour period in which he may have been pre-symptomatic but contagious, this is a welcome comfort and a cold one. It leaves us to contemplate the two-week period in which he (and more than 12 of his friends) caught the damn thing, a period containing roast battles and headliner shows and popups with Dave Chappelle and gigs as far away as Texas. The Comedy Store appears to have looked at this 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 pandemic's more sensible clubs. I doubt it changed course lightly.

Short of pausing indoor shows altogether, every comedy venue should follow the Store's lead and require that all customers show proof of vaccination. (If they cite less restrictive city/county/state health protocols as an excuse not to do this, comedians of a certain stature should pressure them.) They should also provide employees with regular Covid testing and paid sick leave; perhaps the cash infusions many of them just received from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program can help with this. Venues should also do everything in their power to incentivize vaccination—as I edit this piece, I see that the Store just announced it will give two free tickets to anyone who gets fully vaccinated this month, another great initiative. Wherever practical, venues should go a step further by working with local health departments to hold outdoor comedy popups with free shows, free food, and mobile vaccine clinics.

Comedians have tremendous power to sway their audiences' hearts and minds. Over the course of this pandemic, many have used this power to sow apathy toward the virus and misinformation about vaccines. Some have actively, knowingly put their audiences at risk. I understand we're all ready for this to be over, but it's not. The longer we pretend it is, the longer we'll have to make harder and harder sacrifices. Fortunately the inverse is true too: The more action we take now, the less we'll have to sacrifice later. After 16 months of reacting to bad news as it happens, it's time for the comedy industry to start proactively using its powers to beat this thing.

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Header image via Showtime/YouTube.